It’s hard to understand why any director making a film about Jesus would ignore the face-off with Lucifer. Cecil B DeMille has his mind elsewhere in his 1927 King of Kings. Himself succumbing to carnal temptation, DeMille opens his film with a barely clad Mary Magdalene, now a prostitute in love with Judas. In his Jesus of Nazareth (1997), Franco Zeffirelli, I’m guessing, could not conceive of a suitably Botticelli-like way of depicting the wilderness encounter within his five-and-a-half hour mini-series.
By far the worst wilderness scene is in the King of Kings (1961), directed by Nicholas Ray. Jesus (Jeffrey Hunter) climbs with bloody feet over rocky terrain when Miklós Rózsa’s powerful film score is interrupted by Lucifer’s arrival in the form of a plummy voice-over (Orson Wells). The subsequent dialogue is so clumsy, so literal, so cardboard stiff, I was reminded of teenage actors at my local Catholic school.
As he walks out of the wilderness, Jesus meets John the Baptist (Robert Ryan) sitting with John and Andrew. At the Baptist’s recommendation they stand up and start following Jesus like zombies, no questions asked.
In the much-admired 1964 film, The Gospel According to St Matthew, director Pier Paolo Pasolini is anti-Hollywood. Shooting in black-and-white, Pasolini uses non-actors in a 1st-century setting, using language from the Gospel account. There was no screenplay.
We meet a Jesus (pictured) who is ordinary, even frail; he lacks all charisma. As he prays on his knees in the wilderness, a dark figure approaches from a distance. Jesus stands to meet him, and Satan arrives dressed as a priest. Except for a 20-second trip to the top of the temple and back, there’s no drama in the three temptations; neither face changes expression. Satan walks away, but Pasolini’s panoramic shot of Jesus walking out of the desert is worthy of David Lean.
The best of the wilderness scenes are found in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) directed by George Stevens. The screenwriting and direction move in a surprising direction. Jesus (Max von Sydow) hears some laughter and a voice from a cave. It’s Satan (Donald Pleasance), whose voice is gentle and coaxing: “Long hard climb?”
Satan tempts Jesus with the voice of a friend trying to offer a favour. Their faces are barely seen against a night sky filled with a large, cratered moon. Satan explains: I can give you this and that, because “life should be easy”. Jesus struggles for a moment but pulls himself away from the edge of the cliff, and Satan goes back to eating his snack.
Satan, after all, should be depicted as having some touch of St Paul’s “angel of light”.