It says something - and as a contented old atheist, I hardly know if I'm in a position to say what, but it's something - that The Last Temptation of Christ could have the theologically promiscuous fatherhood of an Italian Catholic director working from a screenplay that a Calvinist writer adapted from a 1955 novel by a man raised in the Greek Orthodox church, and still feel like such a consistent, focused, personal story of the individual artist grappling with faith. Maybe the something is that the questions of faith that Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, and Niko Kazantzakis struggle with through the vehicle of this story go beyond sectarian disagreements, and to the heart of a deep mystery at the heart of Christianity. For that is, really, what the film is about, deep inside: not its story about Jesus of Nazareth (Willem Dafoe), presented here as a human wracked by doubt, fear, and the limits of a flesh body, but about what it means to believe in the divinity of such a man.

The film tells us as much in its opening epigraph, quoting Kazantzakis describing his lifelong attempt to make sense of this tension, taking it into himself and working through it publicly. It's obviously there as a cover-your-ass move by the filmmakers, trying (and failing entirely) to stave off a controversy over the film's alleged blasphemy, but just because something has been put into a film for one reason, that doesn't mean it can't serve other purposes, and in this case, what that epigraph does is to briefly but firmly remind us that we are watching a dramatic interpretation of the story of the canonical Christian Gospels, filtered not just through the minds of contemporary artists, but through artists whose relationship to that story is contentious and fraught. It is not really the story of Jesus at all, but the story of Kazantzakis and Schrader and Scorsese exploring their faith.

In this respect, its closest analogue out of all the "Life of Christ" films that I have seen is the infamous 2004 The Passion of the Christ, which for all the good and ill things about it is still fundamentally about Mel Gibson contending with his own personal feelings towards the story of the crucifixion. I bring this up not (only) to be provocative, but because I think the major differnce between the two get us quite a way towards seeing what The Last Temptation of Christ is doing. And it's not that The Passion is gory and obsessed, because one of the things that's easy to forget about Last Temptation is how much it fixates on bodily mortification: it depicts the hammering of nails into hands and feet with just as much interest as Gibson's film in the pictorial qualities of blood splattering, and Jesus hanging on the cross is soaking red from a number of well-displayed open wounds. It's still a film from the director of Raging Bull and Casino. And Scorsese's purpose in focusing on blood and puncturing and flaying is, I think, exactly the same as Gibson's: to put us irresistibly in contact with the idea that the things that happen during a crucifixion are absolutely the most horrible, disgusting, painful way to suffer for hours upon hours as you die.*

The difference is one of tone. The Passion of the Christ is struck with the credulous awe of someone for whom religion is a matter of doing what you're told, and if you're told that Jesus demonstrated he loved us by suffering on the cross, well than that is what you need to know. And the gonzo exaggeration of violence in that film fits within that; it is cinematic in the same way that medieval mystery plays were theatrical, going to extremes because the creator thinks in extremes. The Last Temptation of Christ is also awestruck, but with more nuance and sophistication. It has thought through what it means to suffer, and what it means to willingly suffer. I am reminded of a Mark Twain quote: "Jesus died to save men – a small thing for an immortal to do". The Last Temptation of Christ is, in a sense, a film-length attempt to disagree with that; it is the combined effort by Scorsese and Schrader, taking cues from the novel, to imagine what a very large and amazing thing it was to do, and why that recognition should motivate a person of faith to be amazed and humbled by the self-sacrifice involved, more than simply authoritarian Daddy worship of the kind Gibson's film traffics in.

All of which gets us (to bring it back to the film) to a film about Jesus as a man who is scared of death and does not know if he has the internal strength to face it. That's really it. It takes 164 minutes to cover all of that, which is at the very least an excessive running time, though I will say that the film doesn't feel pacey - certainly it doesn't feel nearly as languorous and indulgent as any given '50s or '60s Bible epic. This is, I think, because it's so alive and unfussy and fascinated by its humans. Among godless types like myself, the film is mostly infamous for its casting choices: Jesus, his disciples, and the rest of 1st Century Judea are all given live by people who aren't even pretending that they're not 20th Century Americans. Better still, 20th Century New Yorkers, most notoriously in the case of Scorsese favorite Harvey Keitel, who plays Judas Iscariot without softening his Brooklyn accent even one iota. But even Dafoe, whose performance is simply remarkable and I wouldn't replace it for the world, feels miscast: he's a sandy-haired, blue-eyed Jesus from out of the most saccharine 19th Century kitsch, and there are multiple places where cinematographer Michael Ballhaus is careful to throw some extra light on his eyes, just so we can really get a nice long look at just how clear blue those eyes are. It's too overt to be a simple matter of blithely treating Jesus as a white guy, especially given that most of the cast has at least been given a chance to tan. Perhaps it's to make sure that Dafoe stands out visually. I'm not sure. What I do know is that the cast, however incongruous to ancient Judea, fits in perfectly with the film's more urgent desire to make the emotions and personalities at play feel modern and immediate. Yes, Keitel sounds like he's from Brooklyn, but we all know people from Brooklyn, we all recognise them as fellow humans and not as the cardboard prigs of a period drama. They're everyday people.

And, crucially, this includes Jesus. Never have I seen a more unexceptional, normal screen interpretation of the character - even in Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1964 The Gospel According to St. Matthew, the best "Life of Christ" movie and the film that best suggests a human Jesus with the same human concerns as the rest of us, the character is still more impressive than we are - impressive in a human way, sort of like we all have that one acquaintance who is better at everything than we could imagine being. Dafoe's Jesus isn't; he doesn't start out that way, at least. In an irony that the film isn't afraid to force on us, we first meet him as he's carving cross-beams for Roman crucifixes, using his own arms to test to make sure the length is correct, before Judas comes in to berate him as a coward who'll take easy work even if it disgusts the rebellious patriots all around him. So that's where we start from: a Jesus who knows cowardice, who needs to work at being divine. And this he does, for the rest of the movie. And as he grows increasingly certain that the calling he has been hearing from God is a calling to his death - his extremely painful death, no less - he looks within himself to find the strength to face that.

Even as a atheist, I'd say that's a worthy theme if ever a film had one: how are we to face our deaths, with strength and resolve and dignity? Or running and hiding? The last temptation of the title, which made the film the target of so many indignant protests, is powerful precisely because of how well it portrays the great appeal of the latter. It's not, as its reputation holds, a film about Jesus banging Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey, who first brought the book to Scorsese's attention). It's about Jesus who just wants to have a little quiet place near some trees where he can be left alone. It's about a man who decides that doing the right thing is just too much work, and it might be nicer to fuck off and live peacefully away from the concerns of the rest of humanity. And who, pray tell, can't understand the appeal of that? This is the film's main gambit: to contrast something that is very simple and obviously nice with something that is very simple and obviously horrible, and to show that because of his bottomless love for humanity, Jesus chose the horrible thing, even after having been shown in its entirety what the nice thing would have been like. To Scorsese and to Schrader, that is the sacrifice that makes Christ worthy of worship: not suffering on the cross for a few painful hours to attain immortality, to paraphrase another Twain quote, but abandoning an entire life of contentment, sometimes mixed with unhappiness, but basically good. This is why their film is muted and adult, where Gibson's is a freakshow.

Given this very recognisably human Christ to play, Dafoe excels. It's a performance so allergic to showboating that it almost becomes silly in its minimalism; when Schrader's script turns to its most literal representation of Gospel dialogue, and we get scenes of Jesus patiently explaining how he is the embodied Son of God who will provide salvation, it's so matter of fact, both in the writing and in Dafoe's ordinary everyman way of delivering the lines, it feels almost embarrassingly amateurish. But these scenes are relatively rare, and scenes of Dafoe looking with hard-eyed uncertainty in to the distance as he is reminded where his path is set to end are extremely common, and those are where the richness of the film lies, in those recognisable, graspable emotions.

It helps immensely that the style in the film is so spare; it is easily Scorsese's least-affected directing. This is largely a matter of necessity; the difficulty of shooting on location in Morocco on a tight budget meant that the film crew needed to take the path of least resistance, and this meant simple visual effects, no more complicated than dissolves for the most part, and it meant limited camera movement. Most importantly, it meant that the director needed to get everything out of the one resource he had, his actor's faces, and so we have what I think to be the Scorsese film most reliant on close-ups and medium close-ups, and certainly is the Scorsese film most reliant on shots that hold on actors while they slowly perform their reactions (I saw "actors" - I mostly mean "Dafoe", though several other people get individual moments to shine; besides Keitel and Hershey, Victor Argo's Peter is particularly strong, and I'm very fond of the intrusion of slightly mannered stage acting that Andre Gregory brings in as John the Baptist). It's austere and direct filmmaking, and even it it shows up a little bit by accident, it's a perfect fit for the obvious importance that the filmmakers put on the material. It doesn't need showy filmmaking to keep our attention; its open and honest humanity does that just fine, and focusing our attention on that open and honest humanity is the film's entire reason for being in the first place.

*But at least it gets you out in the open air.