Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.5. USA, 1988. Universal Pictures, Cineplex Odeon Films. Screenplay by Paul Schrader, based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. Cinematography by Michael Ballhaus. Produced by Barbara De Fina. Music by Peter Gabriel. Production Design by John Beard. Costume Design by Jean-Pierre Delifer. Film Editing by Thelma Schoonmaker. The Criterion Collection. Academy Awards 1988. Golden Globe Awards 1988.
Extremely negative (and in some cases dangerous) publicity destroyed the reception to an intelligent and beautiful film. Based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ equally controversial novel, it tells the story of Christ (Willem Dafoe) from before the Bible records his adulthood, showing him a confused individual who awaits enlightenment from God before taking up his vocation as saviour of the world. Once he does, the film details the struggle between his human and his divine nature. The centerpiece sequence of the film, and the reason it was so criticized by people who mostly didn’t watch it, is Christ indulging in the possibility of saving himself from death while hanging on the cross, marrying Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey) and living out a full life as a human man. The eventual outcome renders the film about as blasphemous as a church hymn, and emphasizes the sacrifice of a man who gave up what all other humans hold dearest in value because he believed it would save the world. Martin Scorsese uses invigorating music and photography to give a third dimension to the kind of story that was often told in plastic ways by the likes of DeMille and Wyler. Dafoe is terrific in the lead, with David Bowie giving a haunting performance as Pontius Pilate.