Home Video Hovel- The Last Temptation of Christ
In masses and in the Monday evening classes that we Catholic kids who went to public school attended for eight years, we were taught that Jesus Christ was both human and divine. It wasn’t some sort of even split either. He was entirely human and entirely divine simultaneously. This is intriguing to a kid because it makes Him sound like a superhero but, on a more mature level, it is fascinating in its potential to inspire a wholly unique brand of spiritual angst. Yet it seems that most who believe in the gospels (particularly the Catholics) only have use for Jesus’ humanity inasmuch as it provides Him with flesh that can be rent and flayed as He suffers gravely for our sins. Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (and presumably Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel before it, which I’ve not read) is interested in the notion that Jesus was human not only in form but in intellect as well.
Famously, the extrapolation of such an approach has lead to massive controversy surrounding the film – it remains banned in the Philippines and Singapore – and actual protests that greeted Last Temptation upon its release, some of which turned violent. There’s a temptation to dismiss as ignorant anyone who would protest as powerful a work of art as this film but it should be noted that many of those people (the ones who weren’t throwing Molotov cocktails into crowded theaters) had a point. Given the way the story not only strays from but directly contradicts the gospels, it is most assuredly sacrilegious, perhaps even blasphemous, depending on your definition of that word (o his credit, screenwriter Paul Schrader admits as much in his section of the excellent commentary track). There is a way of thinking that says religion has no use for intellect, especially a religion like Christianity that has the Bible, a single thing that tells you everything you need to know. I imagine that way of life to be untenable and unpleasant but it works for some and those people are certain not to enjoy this movie.
Honestly, though, the source of the most controversy is the sexual relationships into which Jesus is depicted as entering. I’d guess most of the protestors knew nothing of the context of these scenes and, given the potently sex-negative nature of populist Christianity, they simply assumed this was a movie in which Jesus Christ fucks His way from here to Damascus and probably smokes Marlboros or something, too.
Those people are missing out on what is actually a daring celebration of what Christ represents. The philosophy of peace, respect and equality are positive and wholesome but, despite what we’d like to believe, to enact such change is going to take more than a warm smile and a gentle touch. This is a film in which Jesus struggles at every point on His journey through life, not only in His attempts to change hearts and minds but with His doubts that what He’s doing is right or possible or worthwhile.
Scorsese is aware of the scope of his film and it shows. Events proceed with solemnity and piety yet this movie is more alive than any other filmed telling of Jesus’ life. That part of the world at that time was hot and filthy and full of bugs and diseases. The rushed filming schedule and limited budget likely added to that immediacy but this is the only film of its kind that actually remembers that it’s a period piece and not simply a myth.
The Last Temptation of Christ is my favorite Scorsese film. I think maybe it’s the contradiction to his other works that makes it stand out to me. He generally tells stories of ambitious people, from the enormous financial success of Howard Hughes in The Aviator to the small time schemers of Mean Streets, these are people who yearn to rise above their station in life and not submit to the regulations laid out for them. Henry Hill in Goodfellas explicitly remarks that regular people with regular lives and families are pitiful in his eyes. Yet Scorsese’s Jesus Christ, who is unlike anyone who has ever lived and, to a believer, the most important man in the history of the world, is tempted most by the simple pleasures of normalcy and being content. That should resonate with anyone, human or divine.