It is almost impossible to talk about or think about Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ without stigmatizing it, especially when remembering all the hullabaloo that took place around the time of its release. Let me get this straight: Scorsese makes a loving, deeply personal film about Christ’s exploration of his divinity and his humanity and it is trounced by zealots (it was even unavailable at the loathsome Blockbuster Video chain) while Mel Gibson’s punching bag Jesus in The Passion of the Christ leads to box office gold and likely a few conversions along the way? It would be easy to relegate Temptation’s dishonor to the past but in a day and age where anyone can take Rick Santorum’s platform seriously, enemies of the arts still abound. The Last Temptation of Christ, recently reissued on Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection, is here to remind us of that danger.
But let’s peel away the controversy and try to look only at Scorsese’s lovely film. Bold and daring, especially in 1988 where the glossy likes of Rain Man, Working Girl and The Accidental Tourist were considered some of the year’s best, The Last Temptation of Christ came after Scorsese hit with The Color of Money, a sequel of sorts to The Hustler featuring Paul Newman and box office golden boy Tom Cruise. Using the clout he earned from Color’s big payday, Scorsese turned his sights to adapting Nikos Kazantzakis’ 1951 novel, which he had optioned 10 years before but could never get the financial backing to make. Despite strange turns into dark comedy with After Hours and King of New York, most of Scorsese’s work thus far dealt with damaged New Yorkers struggling with issues of faith, whether it be in God (Scorsese was raised Roman Catholic) or in humanity itself (such as Raging Bull and Taxi Driver). Kazantzakis’ novel presented the human side of Christ, a man who struggled with his divine calling and dealt with very real emotions such as fear, guilt and fealty to an unseen father. It was a natural fit in the director’s oeuvre.
Willem Dafoe’s Jesus in Temptation is not the emotionless statue of King of Kings, the shadowy presence that skulks in the peripheries of Ben-Hur or the bloody pulp that Jim Caviezel becomes in Gibson’s emotionally taxing and deeply flawed Passion. Scorsese and Kazantzakis present Jesus as a very human figure, one definitely not deserving of the frothy mobs that dogged the picture upon its release.
The title itself is key to separating the wheat from the chaff when it comes to splitting hairs about Scorsese’s depiction of Christ. There may be scenes of Christ coupling with women and raising children but it is all imaginary. It is merely temptation. If Christ is supposed to be both human and divine, the pull to escape from the cross and lead a normal must have crossed his mind and with it dreams and imagination, hence the temptation. Neither Scorsese or Kazantzakis claims that Christ actually slept with women, forsook his calling and turned his back on his followers. But this is just a meditation on the human condition, not an out and out reworking of the Jesus story. In all fairness, Gibson also didn’t take his Passion from scripture but the ravings of an insane nun (collected in The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ).
When Scorsese’s film begins, Jesus is a carpenter making crosses for the Romans. He suffers from visions that wrack his tiny frame, but tries not to acknowledge them. His body is torn from flagellation and even though he knows he is destined for important things, he tries to suppress the voices and the visions. It doesn’t take long before he accrues followers (including Harvey Keitel as Judas) and takes a sojourn into the desert where he comes face to face with both God and Satan. When he returns, Jesus is ready to lead and the number of his disciples grows.
Scorsese adheres closely to the story of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount to the Last Supper to Judas’ betrayal at the Garden of Gethsemane. His depiction of the Passion – only a fraction of the length of Gibson’s sadomasochistic vision – is shot like an undulating painting. It is short, mercifully discreet in its violence and utterly powerful. As Scorsese trains his camera on Jesus’ face in agony, this is the moment of his final temptation.
It elapses in a matter of seconds, between the utterances of being forsaken and “it is accomplished.” In those blinding moments of pain, Christ imagines a life where he doesn’t martyr himself. A young girl explains to him that she is an angel sent by God to stop his death, just like God stopped Abraham from killing his son in the final moments. She leads him from the cross and presents him with a life that could have been: a marriage to Magdalene (Barbara Hershey in full hennaed beauty), a life with the sisters Martha and Mary with whom Jesus has children. He grows old and lives a peaceful life. On his deathbed, Jesus realizes the angel is actually Satan in disguise and gives himself back to God and wakes up on the cross. None of it happened except in fantasia. Scorsese allows Jesus a moment of human doubt before passing into divinity. None of it is blasphemous at all.
Set to Peter Gabriel’s rousing score, The Last Temptation of Christ is a beautiful piece of filmmaking by a modern master. The nearly 25 years that have elapsed since its release have done nothing to dull its luster. Like a Da Vinci painting, Scorsese’s film possesses a religious power, one that time and secularism cannot and should not erase.