‘The Last Temptation’ remains relevant

The Last Temptation of Christ is actually a loving take on Jesus’ humanity

APOSTLES. Jesus (Willem Dafoe) flanked by Peter (Victor Argo), Judas (Harvey Keitel) and the rest of the 12 apostles

MANILA, Philippines—In the annual approach to Good Friday, several published pundits or even casual movie lovers trot out a list of “Lenten films” recommended for viewing during the Holy Week break. Seldom does Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ make it on such lists.

This is not surprising since the movie’s release in 1988 was greeted with protests from conservative, fundamentalist Catholics, and has been or has stayed banned in several countries, the Philippines included.

This scenario echoed the virulent reaction to novelist Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation, the movie’s basis first published in 1953 and soon included in the global list of banned books. (The 600-plus-page novel’s English version got published in 1960, some 3 years after the death of the Greek author, who had already been famous for his Zorba the Greek.)

That’s a pity given that, for all of the movie’s “controversial” content, The Last Temptation of Christ is actually one of the most affectionate, most relevant takes on Jesus ever committed to film. As a 2.44-hour adaptation of its massive source novel—longtime Scorsese collaborator Paul Schrader gets primary screenplay credit—the film manages to visually depict the conundrum about the Messiah that had boggled Kazantzakis.

As the novelist says in his book’s prologue, which also opens the movie, “The dual substance of Christ—the yearning, so human, so superhuman, of man to attain God…has always been a deep inscrutable mystery to me. My principle anguish and source of all my joys and sorrows from my youth onward has been the incessant, merciless battle between the spirit and the flesh…and my soul is the arena where these two armies have clashed and met.”

That onscreen intro concludes with this agenda-defining note: “This film is not based upon the Gospels but upon this fictional exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict.”

A big what-if

Familiar factors in the story of Jesus do exist in The Last Temptation of Christ: the apostles, the Virgin Mary, Lazarus, Mary Magdalene, Pontius Pilate, the 40 days and nights in the desert, the Sermon on the Mount, the Last Supper, Judas’ betrayal, Peter’s denial, among others.

What distinguishes The Last Temptation are the extraordinary plot points that constitute the movie’s “fictional exploration,” all of which, in a nutshell, posit a big what-if: What if Jesus, in having been human, was subject to earthly flaws such as fear, uncertainty, reluctance, even small-mindedness?

So we see Jesus as an ordinary Jewish man but one visited by visions and voices that prod him towards the narrow, mortally painful path of divinity. (Willem Dafoe deftly essays the role originally assigned to Aidan Quinn and which Robert De Niro had declined.)

Jesus is introduced as a carpenter in Judea but one who fashions crossbeams used by the Romans to crucify Jewish revolutionaries—both an ironic omen and a traitorous occupation that elicits disgust in Judas Iscariot (played by Harvey Keitel, ever the riveting Scorsese staple).

Jesus eventually comes to accept his fate as the Messiah meant to preach about the kingdom of God’s gospel of love, to the chagrin of the ruling, ruthless Romans. But hindrances constantly arise, from others and within himself, such that Jesus is depicted more than once as being hesitant and constantly conflicted to keep going. He even prays, more than once, for God to spare him the agony while he had the strength.

(Jesus’ thorny destiny is artfully symbolized by the crown-of-thorns image on the movie’s opening credits and theatrical poster.)

CROWN OF THORNS. Willem Dafoe in The Last Temptation of Christ.

In keeping with its Jesus-was-human theme, the most distinguishing trait to The Last Temptation of Christ is (spoiler alert) that last temptation of the title—an imagined final invitation to renounce his role in the divine scheme of things, of saving mankind from the wages of sin. This is offered to Jesus at his weakest moment of all: while nailed on the cross following the grueling trek to Calvary, which itself was preceded by harsh lashing and his mock, thorny coronation as the “King of the Jews” (end of spoiler).

Uncommon elements abound

Combining the source novel’s own unique take on the story of Jesus and Scorsese’s conscious decision to avoid clichés gained from his movie’s celluloid predecessors, The Last Temptation of Christ has more than a distinctive plot to its credit.

An example is the musical score, rendered by former Genesis frontman turned world-music aficionado Peter Gabriel. Orchestrating an array of indigenous instrumental and vocal music from such disparate sources as Africa, Pakistan and India, and adding a few glimmers of pop-rock, Gabriel contributes substantially to underscoring the elemental feel of the film. His soundtrack, an interesting case study for serious musicians, echoes the flick’s unsettling tenor—at once chaotic and controlled, primal and soulful.

Humor is yet another spice to Scorsese’s movie (though not of the exaggerated, Jesus Christ Superstar kind). This is indirectly included by way of the clearly American accent of the actors playing Jews and in the dialogue’s often straight-to-the-point tone. And there are downright funny quips, such as when a random disbeliever dismisses Jesus by saying, “This is what happens to a man who doesn’t get married. His semen backs up into his brain.”

Keitel as an ever uptight Judas gets to elicit chuckles himself. At Jesus’ non-violent stance, Judas comments that he himself can’t “turn the other cheek,” that only an angel, or a dog, can do such a thing. And at Jesus’ constant indecision, at initially opposing violence only to endorse it later on, then talk of his imminent death despite being a miracle worker, Judas complains, “Every day you have a different plan!”

Nudity is also present in The Last Temptation, such as the rather lingering backside shots of Barbara Hershey (who rather bravely plays Magdalene) and Dafoe in separate scenes. Yet such exposed flesh comes off not as an occasion for cinematic exploitation but as a narrative metaphor for vulnerability.

LOVERS. Jesus and Barbara Hershey as Mary Magdalene

And in what is said to be the most opposed, most ballyhooed scene in the movie, Jesus is shown as having copulated with Mary Magdalene. This, despite the presentation of the act in the context of a marriage (albeit imagined) and, thus, with Magdalene as wife and not a prostitute.

He was one of us

For all of the eyebrow-raising facets to The Last Temptation of Christ, the receptive viewer would find it a fond imagining and profound tribute to the man who rose above his human self and any selfishness to, er, flesh out his ultimate divine role. (By contrast, Mel Gibson’s more celebrated The Passion of the Christ depicted the Savior as one whom mankind simply beat and beat and beat to a bloody pulp so as to render his crucifixion almost anti-climactic.)

In having gone through so much suffering and transcending it with his earthly death, Jesus in The Last Temptation is ultimately depicted as an individual any person—of any religion or lack of it, even—can aim to be: one who is able to overcome the weight and woes of the world and eschew earthly comforts for ethereal bliss.

In other words, The Last Temptation of Christ puts the “us” in “Jesus.” And while such a thought may be unthinkable to some, Scorsese and company suggest that it can only make the already faithful Christian even more spiritually grateful.—Rappler.com

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