Today is the birthday of one of my favorite directors. I’ve seen almost all of his films — a long list — and I am tied up in knots with apprehension and anticipation about his upcoming adaptation of one of my favorite novels: Silence, by Shûsaku Endô.

So, as a nod of appreciation to the man who gave the world Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, After Hours, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Departed, The Wolf of Wall Street, and so many more, I’m linking to a few posts from the archives, and restoring a couple of reviews to the site that have long been buried.

I wrote my commentary on The Wolf of Wall Street in response to a blast of protests from Christian media voices about the film’s explicit nature.

How is it that I never reviewed Hugo? Someday, I may have to rectify that.

I included Shutter Island in my round-up of comments about my favorite films of 2010 at Good Letters, the Image blog .

My review of The Departed was published here at the blog, but I also covered the response to the film from other Christian media voices in Christianity Today‘s Film Forum column.

My review of The Aviator was published here at the blog, and I turned in Film Forum coverage to Christianity Today.

When Gangs of New York opened, I covered it for Christianity Today in my Film Forum column. That is no longer available in their online archives, but I’ve restored it here.

Early in my film-reviewing, I posted a few words about The Age of Innocence. I just rediscovered those words in an ancient file, so I’m restoring them as well — here — although I feel some chagrin. Reading my early reviews is like revisiting papers I wrote in high school — I just shake my head and say “I’m glad I’ve learned a few things about writing since then.”

I have never written a proper review of any Scorsese film that arrived earlier than The Age of Innocence. And I’m bothered by that because Casino (which I like better than GoodFellas — yes, I just said that), After Hours, and especially Taxi Driver are all near the top of my Scorsese list. (You’ll find notes on Taxi Driver in my book Through a Screen Darkly.)

But there is no Scorsese film I have discussed with people more than The Last Temptation of Christ

last temptation - dafoe

Oh, The Last Temptation of Christ. What a monster of a movie. For a Christian to admit any admiration of the film at all, I learned, was to invite condemnation from Christians who deemed it to be the work of the devil.

I have always meant to sit down and review this film properly. I should do that one of these days. The prospect is intimidating, but it’s an important film in my own personal history of moviegoing, so I hope I will eventually give it the attention it deserves. For those who are curious, I’ll say this…

I think the movie is a mess. Most of my complaints, though, are about technical aspects of the film, not its treatment of the Gospel. Scorsese’s leniency on issues like New York accents here, for example, is bizarre and distracting. Some of the casting distracts me as well — I love Harvey Keitel, but I just can’t take his Judas seriously, nor, for that matter, Harry Dean Stanton as Paul.

But what about all of those thorny theological issues with the film’s portrayal of an insecure and doubtful Messiah?

Well, it’s important to remember that Last Temptation is based on a novel. I grant the novelist Nikos Kazantzakis a lot of room to maneuver here because he declares, from the beginning, that this is not an attempt to represent the Jesus of history, but rather it is an experiment: a fictional investigation of questions that troubled him about the nature of humanity and divinity. Scorsese — admirably — includes the same disclaimer at the beginning of this film. So I look at Last Temptation as especially speculative and purposefully provocative in a way that I can respect.

Plus… Last Temptation was, for me, powerfully moving and meaningful when it arrived. It made me more capable of re-imagining Christ as a more human entity that I had imagined before. It made him seem more real to me. And I am very grateful for that. What’s more — it was a provocation to a lot of fruitful discussion and debate among friends.

And then there’s the added blessing of the music by Peter Gabriel, which, re-shaped into a complete and separate work called Passion, is the single most important album to me in my music collection.

last temptation

I remember well the controversy at the time of its release. Somewhere in my files I still have a thick packet of pages published by Focus on the Family that described all of the evils they believed that Scorsese had committed with the film. (Many of them, I found upon watching the film, were false accusations.) And much of the controversy stemmed from a big misunderstanding: Many of the scenes that depict Jesus engaged in behaviors contrary to what the Bible describes are, in fact, scenes included in the part of the film that represents Jesus’s last temptation! That is to say, they are part of a vision that the devil is placing in Jesus’s mind, a life that he can choose as an alternative to dying on the cross. But Jesus rejects that life (spoiler!), and the film is true to the Biblical narrative in this respect: Jesus chooses suffering and death for the sake of sinners, rather than choosing to free himself for an easier path.

I would never hold Last Temptation up as a great portrait of Jesus. Rather, I would hold it up as a fascinating example of artists wrestling with theological questions by venturing uncertainly into imaginary scenarios. I think it’s a rewarding experiment in exploring a mystery through make-believe.

I’ve learned to expect, even in Scorsese’s least successful efforts, that I’m going to see something bold, unsettling, thought-provoking, and unforgettable. Whatever he does is filled with personal passion. And that keeps me coming back to watch his work again and again.