Even though I saw The Last Temptation of Christ many years ago, I’ve always been interested in revisiting it. Does it justify the aura it still has over having been attacked, and largely suppressed by the Christian right? The answer is “yes, but with reservations.” Unlike Mel Gibson’s vulgar, sadistic, and largely brain dead The Passion of the Christ, The Last Temptation of Christ is a sincere engagement with religion, spirituality, and the relationship of the artist to both. But it’s also badly edited, overly long, disjointed, and takes some effort to get through before you reach the final payoff.
I’m not interested in the racial aspects of Scorsese’s decision to cast the blue-eyed Willem Dafoe as Jesus. I’m more interested in whether or not Dafoe can pull of the spiritual anguish of a man torn between God and the flesh. I suppose your mileage my vary. He’s not exactly Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, but he does a credible job. Barbara Hershey as Mary Magdalene, and Harry Dean Stanton as Paul are both excellent. Harvey Keitel comes close to stealing the whole movie as Judas. The less said about David Bowie as Pontius Pilate the better.
When we first meet Jesus, he’s lying on the floor in his carpenter’s shop. He’s not a happy man, mainly because his job involves building crosses for the Romans, and helping them crucify Jewish dissidents for sedition. His best friend, Judas, is a zealot, a violent man of the world who wants to lead a revolution against the Roman occupation. It’s a neat little trick. Jesus is initially a “Judas.” Judas is a patriot. If he hasn’t killed his friend Jesus, then it’s largely because he sees him as spiritual and otherworldly, a harmless mystic who only collaborates with the Romans because he’s not really of this earth.
The worst flaw, among many, of Mel Gibson’s horrible The Passion of the Christ was not its anti-Semitism, but it’s lack of spirituality. It simply wasn’t a very religious film. Scorsese has a much lighter touch. He’s a genuinely religious man, not a right-wing bigot using Christianity for his reactionary politics. One of the best qualities of The Last Temptation of Christ is how well the film visually constructs the tension between the grossly physical and the spiritual, the temptation to live in this world, and the urge to transcend it. Which is better? Which will Jesus chose? Will he see life bathed in the golden hour light of the film’s final 30 minutes? Or will he see the money changers at the Temple, and the dogs licking the up the excess blood produced by the industrial slaughter of animals for ritual sacrifice?
The “last temptation” referred to by the title is the temptation to marry, have children, grow old and die, to have a “normal” life instead of dying on the cross at the age of 33. For an artist like Scorsese, this not only has a religious meaning. It’s a commentary on artistic integrity. A successful film maker has the means to get married and raise children, even while he pursues his art. But will his success turn him into a hack, make him lose his edge, give up his drive to express what’s inside him? For Willem Defoe’s Jesus, the temptation is Mary Magdalene. She’s his one true love, the woman he pursues, but can’t commit to. The choice isn’t between Hollywood decadence and art, between hedonism and spirituality, but between a monogamous relationship with the woman he loves, and the quite possibly self-indulgent mortification of the flesh.
One of the film’s best scenes is where Jesus goes to the house where Magdalene works as a prostitute. He waits in line behind dozens of men. He waits, and he waits. Magdalene’s rate per fuck must have been pretty low. Finally it’s “his turn.” He wants her forgiveness before going out into the desert. She denies him. We can see why. Which is the betrayal? Getting married and not following his calling? Or following his calling and not getting married? Which is his calling? There’s no simple dichotomy. Jesus doesn’t save your soul just by staying a virgin. In fact, by staying a virgin, he condemns his true love to a life of assembly line fucking at what appears to be a miserable rate of pay. The whore house where Magdalene works looks a bit like the temple desecrated by the money changers. Later, he saves her from an angry mob. They want to stone her, not for being a prostitute, but for working on the Sabbath and sleeping with Roman soldiers. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” takes on new meaning. If Mary Magdalene deserves to be stoned for sleeping with Romans, then certainly he, Jesus, deserves to be stoned for building crosses.
The Last Temptation of Christ is at its best when Scorsese throws caution to the winds and just rewrites the Gospels. When Paul stabs a resurrected Lazarus it’s mind-blowingly brilliant. It’s at its weakest when it closely follows the traditional story, when it makes no change but to rephrase the language of the King James Bible into 1980s American English. What exactly was the point of the first wedding scene? Was it only to have Jesus say “why don’t you check those barrels over there? That’s not water. It’s wine.” Some of it must have seemed clever at the time. But it doesn’t hold up. I audibly groaned when Judas mocked Peter for changing his mind under pressure. “That’s just like you Peter. You’re like a rock.”
The last hour of the film saves it from the tedium of the middle-sections. Unlike Mel Gibson, Scorsese doesn’t drag out the torture scenes before the crucifixion. He has no interest in torture for its own sake. As Jesus is dying on the cross, an angel in the form of a teenage girl comes to him, and urges him to climb down. The angel, who will later reveal herself to be Satan, can quote scripture for her own purposes. Didn’t God stop the sacrifice of Issac at the last moment? Jesus gives into the temptation. We see why. Scorsese shoots the last hour of the film entirely in the minutes just before and after sunset and sunrise. The film takes has the gorgeous look of Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven. Who wouldn’t want to live in this world?
In his imagination, Jesus marries Mary Magdalene and the couple have children. He’s anguished over her early death, but Satan, the angel, convinces him that it’s just part of life. We see him as an old man. Apparently, he’s had a long, and happy life. But then we run into Paul. The historical Paul brought Christianity to Western Europe. This Paul simply distorts it. Jesus, like an artist disappointed by his audience, gets to watch his message twisted for a rotten agenda. Paul, who initially doesn’t know who he’s talking to, tells Jesus people need religion because they can’t handle reality. This Paul’s Christianity is like a drug. It’s an agent of pacification. We suddenly see exactly why the Christian right protested the opening of the film back in 1988, and why they’ve worked so hard to suppress it ever since. Organized Christianity, Scorsese is telling us, was made possible only when Jesus gave into the last temptation, found himself unable to make the sacrifice that was required of him. It’s the devil quoting scripture for his own purposes.
But the film has a “happy”ending. Jesus saves mankind from Christianity. Having seen where saving his own life leads, to Mary Magdalene dying an early death, to Paul hijacking his teachings to build a corrupt institution in the service of the Roman Empire, to the Romans destroying Jerusalem and expelling the Jews without the birth of a new religion, he chooses to die, to embrace his destiny and become the Messiah, not only for the Jesus people, but for everybody. “It is done,” he says to himself as he expires, and as the film comes to an end. It’s flawed. It’s also one of the most earnest attempts ever made to confront the life of Jesus in cinema.