March 8, 2012 by abbyo
There have been a few instances on this blog where I’ve broached the subject of Christianity. I’ve reviewed a few films about fundamentalist church movements, and in the process talked a little bit about my own faith, but I haven’t yet had the opportunity to talk about belief in-depth. Since we’re a few weeks into Lent right now, I figured there’s no time like the present. This week, I’m reviewing “The Last Temptation of Christ,” and—full disclosure—it’s going to get religious up in here.
The film, based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel and directed by Martin Scorcese, is about the dual nature of Christ, with a particular emphasis on what it means to be fully human in addition to being fully God. It starts out with a great quote from Kazantzakis about his own personal fascination with the human side of Christ. Kazantzakis’ fascination is one that I share. I also find that, almost more than the theology that goes along with the New Testament, what I’m really compelled by is the story, the themes of justice, love and unimaginable sacrifice. I think “Last Temptation” satisfies in both ways, providing a fascinating perspective on Christ’s inner struggles, and also a compelling story with characters you can really latch onto.
This film was the subject of much controversy upon its release. That controversy was mainly generated by fundamentalist Christians who claimed the film questioned Christ’s divinity. These were some of the same people that handed out Kleenex and water bottles when Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” was released in 2004. But, as Roger Ebert writes in his review of the film, “In the father’s house are many mansions, and there is more than one way to consider the story of Christ.” So let people protest all they want. “Last Temptation” is not their movie, and that’s fine. It’s still good.
“Last Temptation” isn’t so much about the messiah so much as the making of him. The Jesus of Scorcese’s film doesn’t start out with a clear purpose, or even a desire to have one. In fact, when we meet him, he’s living a life of fear in Nazareth. He knows God loves him and speaks to him more than to other people, but that knowledge scares him so much that he feels compelled to reject that gift. He’s even making crosses for the Romans to crucify prophets on, trying to make God hate him (in his own words). He’s a savior who hasn’t yet come to accept his full divinity and all that means. He only leaves home and seeks spiritual guidance when he realizes he’s got no other choice.
Jesus also isn’t aware of the shape his ministry is meant to take, at least, not all at once. God’s plan is only revealed to him a little bit at a time. This is a pretty big departure from the Jesus we’re taught about in church. I don’t know about you, but the Christ I was raised with was a pristine and perfect man who knew everything all the time and, honestly, seemed kind of removed from the people he was sent to save. This Jesus, however, is right there in the midst of the people, enlightened and confused and scared as all get-out, trying to discern God’s purpose, just like the rest of us. That’s a Jesus I can relate to.
The main source of controversy, however, stems from the “last temptation” of the title. It’s a bit of a doozy, but not one I found exactly heretical. Here it is: on the cross, Jesus is visited by a being in the form of a little girl who claims to be his guardian angel. She tells him that God didn’t mean for him to actually die, but only to test his loyalty, and see how far he’d go. She helps him down off the cross and introduces him to a new life, where he marries Mary Magdalene, and (after she dies) Mary, the sister of Lazarus, with whom he has several children. At the end of his life as a man, Jesus realizes that this being he’s with is no angel, but is in fact Satan tempting him. He asks for forgiveness from God for straying from his determined path, and fully recognizes his identity as God’s son, at which point it’s revealed that this entire scenario was a hallucination, and Jesus is still on the cross.
There’s plenty that people could potentially find issue with here. The idea of Jesus being married and having offspring, for one thing, is pretty fringe, regardless of the fact that it doesn’t actually happen. But the biggest potential sticking point is when, in this resurrection-free parallel life, Jesus encounters Saint Paul, who’s giving a sermon about the virgin birth, and Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus takes Paul aside and demands he stop telling falsehoods, to which Paul replies that the people need to believe in a resurrected Jesus, even if it isn’t true, so he’s going to keep preaching what he thinks people need to hear rather than the truth. Again, this is all undone by Jesus actually choosing to die on the cross at the end of the film, but it still paints a less-than-flattering picture of an important biblical figure. Not only that, but one whose teachings are a cornerstone of early Christianity.
But, honestly, I don’t care quite so much about whether or not any of these points are heretical. That’s not the point of the film. Nor is the point to diminish Christ’s spirituality. What “Last Temptation” does, and does beautifully, I think, is remind audiences that the concept of Christ as “fully human, fully God,” means exactly that. Scorcese’s film argues that Jesus was a man with the literal weight of the world on his shoulders, and guess what? That’s not an easy thing to be. It’s a comfort (to me at least) that the savior of the world, the son of God, had fears just like me, and he was still able to pull off something amazing.
All this is to say nothing of the way the movie’s composed—it’s gorgeous, by the way. Looking at this cinematography is like looking at a painting. Check it out:
If you’d like a review that talks more about the movie and a bit less about the theology, read Matthew Dessem’s Criterion Contraption review here.