Based on the 1951 novel of the same name by Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis, who also wrote Zorba the Greek (1946), the film is a celebration of one man’s struggles with his conscience, his fears and lust, as well as his desire to bring out mankind’s greater potential for compassion and love.
Working as a carpenter, Jesus makes crosses for the Romans to use in a form of death penalty for dissidents by nailing them to it as they slowly die from exposure to the elements, blood loss and starvation. He is hated by both Jews and Romans alike and eventually leaves his home to discover why he has these strange feelings and visions.
However you may feel about the films of Martin Scorsese, you cannot deny his passion for film making. He has helped create the era of modern cinema with some of the most powerful and entertaining films of our time; Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990), The Departed (2006) and Hugo (2011) to name a few. Raised as a Roman Catholic and inspired by such classics as The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), Scorsese followed his heart with this unusual biblical story about the very human side of Jesus and how he struggled with his demons, which he had been interested in making into an epic film for years.
As Jesus gathers a following he becomes more afraid and full of doubts about himself and his message. Portrayed by Willem Dafoe, known for his roles in Platoon (1986), Born on the Fourth of July (1989), Clear and Present Danger (1994) and Spider-man (2002), Jesus is like a child arguing with his father about doing something that he doesn’t want to do, but is forced by circumstances, peer pressure and God’s voice to follow a path he never knows where it will lead.
Using his signature visual style, Martin Scorsese’s vision is a much more personal and intimate portrait of Jesus the man. The world he creates is extremely authentic looking with iconic biblical scenes kept very simple and natural in their beauty, allowing for a powerful genuine feel. Filmed in Morocco, Scorsese used the natural landscapes to create stunningly cinematic images and employed Moroccan locals to play background characters, adding a level of authenticity. Peter Gabriel’s music gives the film an aura of the time period and also at times a celebratory feeling that we have just witnessed a very special event in history.
Jesus eventually realizes that his enemies are too powerful to conquer with love, the axe or even miracles; he must do something more drastic to spread his message. His suffering became legendary and the movement gained strength over time. While on the cross, in the throes of despair as he calls out to God to please not abandon him, he has a hallucinogenic dream that Satan has tricked him into abandoning his quest and allows him to have the life of a normal person creating a family and growing old. But would he have become the phenomenon that we know today had he not died on the cross, if indeed he did? And how much of Jesus’ life was fabricated and what lead him to his convictions?
The message of the film seems even more relevant in today’s volatile economic and social climate. Jesus was fighting against a world of cruelty, corruption and greed, which really isn’t so different from the world we are living in today. His crusade reminded me in many ways of the Occupy movement. Not many people have the courage to stand up for what they believe is right. The Occupy movement stood up against the corruption of corporations, governments and the rich. Unfortunately the movement was too small and disorganized and lacked the focus and leadership to succeed. Sometimes it takes a martyr to give a fledgling movement the push it needs to become a phenomenon.