[Preface: This reflection will not cover the technical aspects of the film since in a discussion of a film so packed with ideas as this is, things like acting, set direction, costumes, etc. become moot points. Suffice it to say, this is a Scorsese picture, which means it is executed professionally and believably. The only incredulity becomes an issue is at the end, when Harvey Keitel’s Brooklyn accent inexplicably emerges in the midst of his “Old Judas” voice; but again, that’s just small potatoes compared to the bigger pictures here.]
Before the first scene of Martin Scorsese‘s The Last Temptation of Christ even appears before our eyes, we are given a quote by Nikos Kazantzakis, the author of the book on which this film is based, that discusses his own personal struggle between matters of the flesh and matters of the spirit. We then get the following statement:
This film is not based upon the Gospels but upon the fictional exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict.
To be fair, it does owe a lot to the Gospels. We get depictions of several famous scenes right out of the New Testament, such as Jesus’ struggle with Satan in the desert and his performances of miracles like curing the blind, raising Lazarus from the dead, etc. Even so, these events are mere scaffolding for the larger goal of the film, namely to depict Jesus’ struggle with his dual human and divine natures.
There is a scene early in the film in which Jesus (Willem Defoe) meets with Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey) in the brothel in which she works. There is some sort of romantic past between them that we never discover the true nature of, though we can be sure it never elevated to a sexual level, for Mary assures him that if he were to stay with her, he would “remain a virgin.” In this scene, however, we see Jesus struggling to not give into his desires to do more than remain with Mary; he is angry, apologetic, and ultimately solemn. Wrestling with sin is a common occurrence for Jesus, and this struggle is depicted quite lucidly. Scorsese reminds us early and often of Jesus’ dual human and divine natures; certainly, having the desires of a young man but the purity of God would be enough to cause even the most holy man to wage a war against himself.
Much of the middle section of the film does not deviate much from the Gospels; this is Jesus’ time as a rabbi (the word means “teacher,” after all) and miracle-worker. This is when we see him walk into the desert and struggle with Satan’s various temptations; this is when we see him scold the crowd tormenting Mary Magdalene for being the ones to cast the first stone; this is when we see him cure a man’s blindness by rubbing a mixture of spit and dirt on the man’s eyes; this is when we see him call Lazarus back from death and forth from the tomb; and this is when we see him walk into the Temple in Jerusalem and destroy the money-changers’ stalls for daring to earn a profit in a house of God. Still, even amidst all of this adherence to the strict interpretations of the Gospels, there is the occasional scene in which we see Jesus struggle with his dual human and divine natures. He confides to Judas (Harvey Keitel), for instance, that when he saw the crowd torturing Mary Magdalene, he only wanted to kill them, but that when he opened his mouth, all he could talk about was love. He understands that he has a special gift, but he doesn’t quite yet understand why. Much later in the film, after Jesus has come to terms with his fate, he cries to God during his famous visit to Gethsemane, “Why Crucifixion? Is there no other way?” At this point, he still doesn’t quite understand his purpose.
Perhaps the greatest controversy arises from the closing segment of the film. Just as the Gospels say, we see Jesus betrayed by Judas, meet with Pontius Pilate (David Bowie [!]), beaten by soldiers, and eventually crucified on Golgotha. It is at this point, however, when he cries out to God, asking why he’s been abandoned, that the narrative deviates from the Gospels: a little girl appears on the screen, claiming she is Jesus’ guardian angel who has been sent by God to take him down from the cross, which she soon after does. Jesus and this supposed angel walk off while the crowd of people still look on at the crosses as though nothing has changed. The following sequence shows us Jesus marrying Magdalene, having a child with her, and going through the pain of watching her die. The angel explains that all women are a version of “Mary,” and soon after she takes him to Mary, the sister of Lazarus, who he marries and starts a family with. The sequence continues to progress at rapid pace, and soon we see Jesus in old age; as he is lying on his death bed, he is suddenly confronted by the older selves of his disciples. Judas comes in last, calling him a traitor and revealing that the supposed guardian angel is in fact Satan, who has managed to tempt Jesus into a life away from his purpose. With the Jewish Rebellion raging around him, Jesus crawls to Golgotha and begs God to put him back on the cross; he now realizes his purpose: he has been sent to sacrifice himself. Soon after this supplication, we cut to Jesus back on the cross. Though bleeding and broken, he smiles and cries, “It is accomplished! It is accomplished.” And indeed it is: Jesus has struggled with Satan and the dual natures of himself one last time and has emerged victorious, now able to fulfill his sacrificial purpose.
I can understand why this last segment of the film has garnered so much controversey. It is, strictly speaking, heretical, but only as heretical as, say, Monty Python‘s The Life of Brian or Salmon Rushdie‘s The Satanic Verses. Contrary to what the religious authorities in all doctrines want you to believe, “heresy” is not evil; rather, it simply means “non-canonical.” Heretical works are only guilty of depicting circumstances differently than the traditional beliefs of a given faith. The Last Temptation of Christ is in no way, shape, or form blasphemous, which means against God or a set of gods. There is nothing in this film that degrades Jesus or God or any other deity for that matter. If people are upset that Jesus struggles with (among other things) his urges to consummate his relationship with Mary Magdalene, then they are forgetting a key aspect of the New Testament’s description of Christ: his humanity. It is only human, after all, to lust. It’s quite something else to have the will-power to forgo that lust.
The Last Temptation of Christ gives us a story that, despite outward appearances, has much to offer for the entire human race, not merely a small portion of it. Regardless of which religion (if any) you proscribe to, you cannot deny the importance of the messages this film delivers, namely the need for unconditional love for those around you–and the human race at large–and the nobility of self-sacrifice for a greater cause. These are traits that are common to all religions, cultures, and time periods, and ones that I’m sure will continue to be depicted when our great-grandchildren’s great-grandchildren pass away. Once you look beyond the hype and close-minded condemnations by various authoritarian institutions, you will see that The Last Temptation of Christ is in fact an intensely religious depiction of the eternal spiritual conflict that we all struggle with throughout our lives.
We are only human, after all.