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The Last Temptation of Christ
The Last Temptation of Christ

by David Ehrenstein

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Can we finally look at The Last Temptation of Christ?   It’s not a simple question.   And there are no easy answers.

The Last Temptation of Christ is, without question, one of the most serious, literate, complex, and deeply felt religious films ever made.   Brilliantly directed by Martin Scorsese, this adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ imaginative retelling of the life of Christ should surely be discussed alongside Carl Th. Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew by theological scholars and thoughtful moviegoers alike for years to come.   Unfortunately, such serious discussion has been blocked by a yowling mob of right-wing zealots who have stood in the way of all discussions of the work since it was first released in 1988.

Written in 1955, The Last Temptation of Christ, according to its author, shows that "that part of Christ’s nature which was profoundly human helps us to understand and love him and to pursue his passion as though it were our own.   If he had not within him this warm human element, he would never be able to touch our hearts with such assurance and tenderness; he would not be able to become a model for our lives."

It goes without saying that such a story would be bound to meet with the disapproval of the dogmatic.   By the same token, it is one that is ideally suited to the makeup of such complex psychological studies as Mean Streets and Raging Bull.   Still, no one could have quite predicted what happened when Kazantzakis’ tale was finally before Scorsese’s cameras.

In 1983, Scorsese began preproduction on the film for Paramount Pictures.   Budgeted $15 million to $20 million, this version of Last Temptation would have starred Aidan Quinn as Jesus, with Harvey Keitel as Judas, Barbara Hershey as Mary Magdalene, and Sting as Pontius Pilate.   But weeks before the shooting was to begin the project was canceled—at least in part as a result of a letter-writing campaign engineered by right-wing fundamentalist Christian groups.   They claimed that Last Temptation would portray Christ as a homosexual—though such a notion figured neither in the Kazantzakis novel nor in the film Scorsese planned.   Unbowed, Scorsese persevered, eventually making Last Temptation for Universal Pictures (for an estimated $6 million to $8 million), four years later with Willem Dafoe as Christ, David Bowie as Pilate, and Keitel and Hershey in the parts for which they were originally cast.

But by that time, the hysterical fantasies of a select few had given way to the organized campaign of a larger and more sinister consortium.   Fueled by half-truths, outright lies, and anti-Semitic slurs—the likes of which haven’t been heard in this country since the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg—this well-orchestrated campaign demanded nothing less than Last Temptation’s total destruction.   Spearheaded by Tim Penland of MasterMedia and Bill Bright of the Campus Crusade for Christ, an ad hoc committee of self-styled "fundamentalist leaders" declared that a film none of them had actually seen depicted "a mentally deranged, lust-driven man who, in a dream sequence, comes down off the cross and has a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene."   If Universal would not burn the negative, they offered to buy it to destroy it themselves.

Predictably, those TV-savvy right-wing reverends Jerry Falwell and Donald Wildmon joined the chorus of disapproval, along with the three Pats—Robertson, Buchanan, and Boone.   Though they hadn’t seen the film, they were far from disinclined to discuss it.   Likewise, director Franco Zeffirelli withdrew his Young Toscanini from the Venice Film Festival when he learned that Last Temptation—which he described sight-unseen as "truly horrible and completely deranged"—was invited there for a screening.   In this he was little different from the Roman Catholic archbishop of Los Angeles, Roger Mahony, who, though he hadn’t seen the film, deemed it "morally offensive."

Still, the archbishop made a point of distancing his critique from the protests of the Reverend H. L. Hymers, who staged a rally in front of the home of Lew Wasserman, then chairman of MCA, the parent company of Universal Pictures.   Carrying placards proclaiming "Wasserman fans anti-Semitism," this minister and his flock proceeded to provide the fanning—chanting to all who’d hear that "Jewish money" was behind Last Temptation.

Had the Reverend Hymers been a bit more attentive to detail, he would have been aware that Nikos Kazantzakis was of the Greek Orthodox faith; that Paul Schrader, who wrote the screenplay, was raised as a Calvinist; and that Martin Scorsese was a Roman Catholic.   But then, Hymers hadn’t seen the film either.   And why should he, or any of Last Temptation’s foes, want to confuse themselves with the facts?

Rather than a "blasphemous" attack on Christ’s divinity, climaxing with a salacious "sex scene," The Last Temptation of Christ is a stirring affirmation of faith both in the person of Jesus and in his teachings.   This affirmation is unorthodox only in that it requires a viewer to think about the meaning of the gospels for every one of the film’s 164 minutes.   And it is this process of thought that the film’s attackers can’t abide—particularly as such thought involves the paradox of Jesus’ simultaneous divinity and humanity.   And this is the crux of the matter.   For The Last Temptation of Christ presents divinity not as a given, but rather as a process Christ explores through his humanity.   Consequently, the film’s message couldn’t be simpler.   By experiencing Jesus’ divinity as a process, we come to learn how the divine might enter our own lives.

We first meet Jesus as a grown man—frail and terrified.   Troubled by crippling headaches and mystical visions, he’s well aware that he isn’t like ordinary men but is uncertain about what the future holds in store for him.   He sees himself as a sinner, for while he’s resisted sin, he feels he’s done so out of cowardice.   He takes personal responsibility for the fact that Mary Magdalene has become a prostitute—blaming himself for not having married her and provided a normal life.

His friend Judas is convinced that Jesus’ future is in politics—as the man who will lead the Jews in revolt against their Roman captors.   But after meditating in the desert, Jesus comes to a different realization of his destiny.   Slowly gathering about him the group of men and women who would become his disciples, he begins to preach.

"I’ll just open my mouth and God will do the talking," he says at first.   Later, as he gains conviction, he talks both of love and of "the sword."   Finally, he comes to realize that his purpose on Earth is to be the "lamb of God," sacrificing himself on the cross.   He urges Judas to betray him in order to accomplish this mission.   And it is on the cross he faces his "last temptation."

Looking down, Jesus sees a beautiful little girl who claims to be an angel of the Lord.   She tells him his sufferings are over and that he doesn’t have to go through with the crucifixion.   It is only a test—like God’s telling Abraham to kill his son Isaac.   Taking him to a verdant valley, the girl presents him to Mary Magdalene for marriage.   Magdalene later dies, but Jesus continues living a quiet life with Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus—the man whom he raised from the dead.   "There is only one woman in the world," the girl tells him.   He fathers children and lives to a ripe old age.   But on Jesus’ deathbed an angry Judas confronts him.   He tells him he’s missed his calling by not being crucified.   And he reveals that the angelic-looking girl is, in fact, the devil.   Realizing the truth, Jesus recommits himself to God—and finds himself back on the cross.   In truth, he’s been there all along.   The "last temptation" took place in a flash, between his questioning why God has "forsaken him" and his final declaration that "it is accomplished."   It is in this final moment that Christ’s divinity is fully revealed.

All of this, needless to say, means nothing to the film’s enemies, who have used it as little more than a ploy to regain ground lost in the wake of the Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart money and sex scandals.   And that’s not to mention those other opportunists, who, in the wake of Last Temptation, have created a powerful reactionary political lobby within the Republican Party that calls itself "Christian" while harboring beliefs and attitudes that are more political than spiritual.

But that is another matter—and the possible subject of another movie.   For the moment, it is enough to contemplate—in reasoned calm—the power and the glory of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.

Copyright © David Ehrenstein
All rights reserved.   Reproduction without permission is prohibited.

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The Last Temptation of Christ DVD cover
The Last Temptation of Christ
(Criterion Collection)

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