I want to talk about Jesus.
Chances are that first sentence alarmed a few of you. On my behalf, whoa, now. Whoa. Those close to me know I’m the last person to go on some rambling faith-based diatribe, and likewise know I’m not inclined to go on an anti-religious rant either. So for the next thousand words or so, let’s lower ourselves back onto our collective haunches and chill. There’s no better time: today’s Easter Monday and a holiday. And, given the season, it’s fitting to kick back and examine Martin Scorsese’s controversial 1988 film, The Last Temptation of Christ.
Kazantzakis insisted his novel was not an accurate adaptation of the Gospels, rather a “fictional exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict” between desires of flesh and faith. As such, there is no shortage of liberties taken, the most notorious being Christ’s imagined (I’ll elaborate on that later) romantic relationship with Mary of Magdalene (Barbara Hershey) as well as Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus. It also features Harvey Keitel as the most Brooklyn Judas ever, emphasizing his initial antagonism toward and later devotion to Jesus, portraying him as a Jewish zealot engaging in acts of insurgency against the Romans, and finally significantly altering his motives for betraying Christ.
Following a written disclaimer from Kazantzakis and the opening titles set to Peter Gabriel’s magnificent score, we’re introduced to Jesus, a young carpenter tormented by voices and even occasional seizures, and taking it about as well as most people in that era would—which is to say, not very. He’s confused, aimless. Already worn down from the first hints of the spiritual conflict that will dominate much of the rest of the film, Jesus has been reduced to self-loathing, building crosses for the Romans and routinely mutilating himself with a metal cilice as a morbid means of atonement. He’s harassed and shamed by Judas and his neighbours for collaborating with the Romans and tempted away from what he’s gradually starting to realize is his vocation by Mary, a childhood friend who’s taken up prostitution.
The above changes are drastic, to say the least, but it’s not some half-assed attempt to give Christ a “dark” and “gritty” treatment for modern times. I’m reminded of how Peter Jackson altered the character of Aragorn for his Lord of the Rings adaptations (it doesn’t hurt that Viggo Mortensen could probably do a damn good Jesus as well): while the Aragorn of Tolkien’s epic steadfastly and unerringly embraces his destiny from the start, the Aragorn of the films prefers his isolated and responsibility-free existence. It’s not until well into the third film that he finally takes up his ancestor’s sword and leads the free men of Middle-earth against Sauron. Like Jackson’s interpretation of Aragorn, Dafoe’s Jesus endures a lifetime of conflict and indecision before realizing the obligation he has toward his fate, as painful as it might be. While it might not be scripturally accurate—heck, it isn’t—it fits with the film’s themes and makes Christ’s journey incredibly interesting to watch.
One fascinating segment of this journey makes use of the film’s previously mentioned political elements. While Jesus realizes early on he’s to lead the Jews to freedom, he spends a decent portion of the film in a quandary over exactly how that freedom should be achieved. Judas, ever the zealot, advocates revolution. In an understated fireside debate with Jesus, he argues that before the spiritual needs of the people can be attended to, their physical needs (freedom, political independence) must be satisfied. Christ counters that unless one first fulfills their spiritual desires, they’ll just replace any physical opponent they overcome with another. It’s effectively the film’s main conflict in a bottle, albeit with a political bent.
Jesus does briefly entertain political ambitions following his self-imposed exile in the desert, but at the cusp of martyrdom during an attempted coup, he realizes that he cannot carry the sins of humanity with violence, but through self-sacrifice. It’s then revealed that Judas only reluctantly betrayed Christ, and even then at the man’s own request, another massive divergence from scripture but one that carries great emotional impact, considering the apostle’s animosity at the beginning of the film.
What follows is perhaps my favourite scene in the whole movie: Jesus’ arrest and conversation with Pontius Pilate, in this case portrayed by none other than the Thin White Duke himself, David Bowie. While he’s rightfully celebrated for his music, Bowie doesn’t get nearly enough credit for his acting. He brings restraint and genuine elegance to nearly every role I’ve seen him in, and Pilate is no different, and his usual approach benefits from the changes made to Pilate and his role in Christ’s condemnation.
While the Pilate of the Gospels is invariably uninterested in Jewish politics and feuds and unwilling to accept responsibility for Jesus’ sentence (famously washing his hands of the riotous crowd’s decision), Bowie’s Pilate is direct and accountable. He sympathizes with Christ but also wants to preserve Roman control over Judea. Alive, Jesus is a symbol of hope to zealous Jews, whether he wants them to revolt or not; dead, he’s a warning. He accepts full responsibility for the Jewish Messiah’s execution but does so with a heavy heart. Even if you’re averse to the film as a whole I highly recommend looking these five or so minutes up.
But Christ doesn’t go his death free of torment—at least not yet. A friend of mine much more versed in theology than I am notes that it’s not just physical torture he endures. In taking on all of Man’s sins at once, Christ fully embraces his humanity and is suddenly cut off from contact with God—perhaps the most terrifying sensation in his life, much more than the nails through his hands and feet or the air being sucked from his lungs.
In God’s absence, Jesus is given a glimpse of another possible life, courtesy of a figure claiming to be an angel. In the movie’s most controversial sequence—so controversial a Christian fundamentalist group threw a Molotov cocktail at a Paris theatre in protest—Jesus sees a possible life with Magdalene and the two sisters, a life filled with children and grandchildren and lived to an old age. But it’s an easy existence, one devoid of sacrifice and benefitting just Jesus himself, and he lives only to see Jerusalem burn. He realizes the “angel” is just one last demonic attempt to steer him away from humanity’s salvation—the Last Temptation of the title—and accepts his fate, commending his spirit to his Father’s hands. He closes his eyes, expiring, and in the single greatest moment of synchronicity in film history the celluloid film is accidentally overexposed, closing the movie with a cascade of colour and light.
I began this piece saying I wasn’t going to get preachy, and if that’s the way I ended up, well, you have my apologies. I also impress it’s more a depiction of the conflict between flesh and soul than an accurate rendition of the Gospels, something the friend from earlier insisted I remember. I don’t think it’s changed my actual metaphysical beliefs, at least not in the three times I’ve watched it, but it’s given me greater appreciation for a subject I only recently realized I had failed to fully grasp during years of Sunday School. That’s good cinema.