Tuesday, May 15, 2012

#638. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

Directed By: Martin Scorsese

Starring: Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Barbara Hershey

Trivia: The Jews have American accents while the Romans have British accents

Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ was at the center of a great deal of controversy back in 1988. Morality in Media declared the film “an attack on Christianity”, and the government of Chile, calling it “blasphemous”, banned the movie outright. 

But the story at the heart of The Last Temptation of Christ is far from blasphemous, unless it’s now considered blasphemy to believe what the church has taught for centuries: that Jesus, though divine, was also very mortal. It’s his dual nature that the film explores, and does so in a most compelling manner.

Placing a different spin on the life of Jesus, The Last Temptation of Christ is based not on scripture, but a novel penned by Nikos Kazantzaki. Beginning with his days as a carpenter, we meet a Jesus (Willem Dafoe) who is regarded as a traitor by his fellow countrymen, due to the fact he makes crosses for the Romans, which are used to put Jews to death. His sharpest critic is his friend, Judas (Harvey Keitel), a militant bent on driving said Romans out of Judea. 

Along with a barrage of insults constantly tossed his way, Jesus also suffers internal strife, haunted by visions he cannot understand. Before long, he discovers these "visions" are the handiwork of God.  So, he turns to preaching, traveling the land and drawing many followers as he goes. 

With a select group of men to assist him, including Judas, Peter (Victor Argo) and John (Michael Been), Jesus performs miracles and brings the word of God to the people. But along the way, he manages to incur the wrath of both religious leaders and the militants, who, led by Paul (Harry Dean Stanton), see Jesus’ good deeds as little more than a diversion from the task at hand: ridding Judea of the Romans. 

Arrested and sentenced to death by Pontius Pilate (David Bowie), Jesus accepts his fate as God’s will, yet there's one more temptation he must face before his suffering will be at an end.

The Last Temptation of Christ brings to the story of Jesus a rare human quality. Like most men, Jesus is at first unsure of his purpose in life, and despises the weaknesses that cause him to sin. Many of today’s religious leaders preach solely of Jesus’ divinity, yet isn’t the true miracle of his life the fact he was as much flesh and blood as he was the son of God? 

Far from the rallying cry of atheists and non-believers it’s purported to be, The Last Temptation of Christ kicks off several years before the scriptures, at a time when Jesus hadn't yet realized his true purpose. He hears voices, but doesn’t understand them.  He has headaches, but can’t say why.  And he knows God has a plan for him, yet isn’t sure if he even wants to know what it is. We see a Jesus both searching for answers and frightened of finding them. “God loves me”, he says, “but I can’t take the pain. I want him to hate me”. God eventually reveals his grand scheme, yet does so slowly, and it’s more than flesh and bone can stand.

Scripture tells us Jesus lived as man, that he faced temptations and suffered excruciating torture. The Last Temptation of Christ takes the story a step further, showing us Jesus’ very human reaction to it all. It's this preference for the earthly over the divine that stirred up all the controversy, but did this humanity truly diminish the power of Jesus’ divinity? 

If believers are willing to accept that Jesus lived among us as a man, why is it heresy to assume there were times when he acted like one, experiencing the same hardships and uncertainties that affect us all? Wouldn’t this make his ultimate sacrifice all the more potent?

Christians believe Jesus gave his life for our sins. I believe The Last Temptation of Christ is the first film to show us just how great a sacrifice that truly was.


Robert M. Lindsey said...

I had several problems with the movie. First, that he had no idea what he was here for. The movie opens with Defoe as Jesus practically insane with headaches (why headaches?) and doubt. There aren't any examples that I can think of off the top of my head where God was telling someone what to do and they were unsure of what he wanted. They may not have liked it, but there wasn't any doubt what the next step was. They didn't always see the end, but to be so unsure is "unbiblical" if I can call it that. One of the main points of the Gospels is that Jesus died sinless, so while fully human and experiencing the temptations, he did not give in to the sin. That's the main place the charge of "blasphemous" comes from.

Granted Jesus was human and expresses many human foibles, he gets exasperated at the disciples thick-headedness, extreem stress in the Garden before the crucifixion, etc.

There were aspects of the film I liked as well. It was a stellar cast. The temptations in the desert is stunningly beautiful. Micheal Been, of my favorite band The Call, was John. There were many interesting ideas to explore, but Kazantzaki and Scorsese carry them too far outside of orthodox for there to be a real conversation.

INDBrent said...

I've never understood the controversy either. There was no instance of Jesus committing any sin, only visions he experiences and rejects. It doesn't claim to be a biblical retelling but I thought it was beautifully done.

DVD Infatuation said...

Thanks for stopping by, guys!

Anthony: You make some good points. Personally, I didn't have a problem with the headaches. True, there haven't been any previous references to people experiencing pain by receiving divine instruction, but then, nobody was ever given a task as tremendous as Jesus, and since scriptures give us no record of how Jesus reacted to learning of his place in life, I felt the artistic license used in the book/film was a good way to bring it all to life.

I guess my main problem with the charges of blasphemy are also somewhat compounded by what I remember happening around this time. The protests against the film made the news (at least in the Philadelphia area), and many people who protested not only hadn't seen the film, but used the fact they hadn't as a point of pride! We can sit here and discuss the pomposity of denouncing something you haven't seen (it's been done to death, actually, in many other circumstances), but having experienced the arrogance of some "faithful" first-hand (thanks to 12 years of Catholic school), the backlash this film received (especially when I didn't find it nearly as horrible as many claimed, and it wasn't even based on scripture but a fictional book) rubbed me the wrong way.

Brent: Unfortunately, most people overlook the fact it was a dream, and can't get past the scene with Jesus "laying down" with Mary Magdalene. I am in agreement with you, sir: I felt it was not only beautifully, but tastefully done.

Thanks to both of you for the comments!

Jeremy Bates said...

I have honestly never seen the movie but would like to slow down enough to watch it.

I followed your link from Twitter and am now following your blog as a result.


DVD Infatuation said...

Jeremy: Thanks for checking out the blog, and for following along on Twitter!

This one's definitely worth seeing. And if you ever get a chance to, please be sure to stop back and let me know your thought on the film.

Thanks again!

James Robert Smith said...

It's an interesting film. I rather enjoyed it, but I lost my Criterion DVD somewhere along the way. Mel Gibson was initially offered the lead role but of course--being a religious fanatic--refused the offer. Dafoe turned in an inspired performance.

Anonymous said...

It's an extraordinarily powerful portrait of religious faith. I have none myself, but had no problem grasping the very real issues here, thanks to a poetic script, sure direction and several terrific performances.

CpT GoThMcLaD said...

Ok I'm curious was it jesus sting was initially cast to play? And would he have been credited as Gordon?