Growing up, my mother was rather restrictive of what films we were exposed to. This isn’t to say we were sheltered. Being a kid in the 80s and early 90s meant seeing the hyper-masculine films of Sly, Arnold, and their ilk. Action movies with big body counts were okay because the violence was fake. Films that dealt with sexuality and religion (and those with more visceral violence) were forbidden. One such film was Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. Due to its stark, humanistic take on Christ, it remains one of the most controversial depictions of Christ, and one of my favorite films, even after my switch to atheism.
Scorsese’s films have always held a deep, emotional core in them. From Mean Streets to Raging Bull, the lead character is usually guilt-ridden and seeking some form of personal redemption. The guilt is tied into Scorsese’s staunch Catholic upbringing. The director openly stated he’d wanted to make a film about Christ’s life since childhood. It’s entirely possible that a filmmaker with Scorsese’s immense talent could have made a vivid, conventional Christ film. Instead he chose to approach the subject matter from a human (rather than divine) perspective.
The Christ character presented in Last Temptation is stripped of all grandeur and piety. Replacing those traits we are given a figure wallowing in self-doubt and visions he cannot control. He rejects these visions and his calling by collaborating with the Romans. His collaboration, as a carpenter, is make crosses for the crucifixion of condemned Jewish revolutionaries. This action ostracizes Jesus from his community and draws the condemnation of childhood friends Mary Magdalene and Judas Iscariot. Willem Dafoe’s Jesus is frail, a human being truly suffering under the weight of a destiny he neither desires nor fully understands.
The doubt of one’s purpose in life is one of the profound aspects of the human experience. It’s often associated with the guilt one can experience for not living up to their potential. The Jesus character of this film suffers from crippling doubt throughout the film. The character becomes far more relatable to the audience because he experiences the same fears we face on a daily basis. Both Scorsese and Niko Kazantzakis (the author of the novel Scorsese adapted for the film) struggled with the conflicting images of Christ as presented in the Gospels. The common portrayal is of someone divine and human simultaneously. That combination could not be reconciled easily. On the one hand there is the supposedly divine mission; on the other hand, the normal human desire to love and be loved, to enjoy life’s bounty, and to have a family.
Much has been said and written about the ending sequence. Dafoe’s Christ is nailed to the cross, suffering greatly, and it is nearly his time to die. This moment is a human at his most desperate: the desire, born of our primordial past, to avoid suffering and prolong life. Then a beatific, golden-haired angel appears and tells him what he most wants to hear at that moment: you don’t have to die. It is the relief on Dafoe’s face that sells this moment, harkening back to his earlier protestations in Gethsemane.
The sequence that follows can be viewed as a dream, a supernatural reality, or the vivid hallucinations of a dying man. Christ marries Mary Magdalene, whom is implied to be something close to a childhood sweetheart. After her sudden death, he marries both Mary and Martha (the sisters of Lazarus) and raises a family with them. This is the titular last temptation: to not bear the weight of the world and live a simple life. It is an inversion of the Hero’s Journey.
Two events stick out from this sequence: the meeting with Paul and the deathbed confrontation with Judas. Christ meets Paul preaching in town while running errands with his family. Paul preaches his story of blindness and redemption, of the savior Jesus, who died and rose again. Naturally upset at being the focus of this man’s ravings, Christ upbraids the apostle. Paul’s response is one of the most direct and honest descriptions of religion I’ve ever encountered on film. He outright states that the truth about Jesus is not as important as the feeling the message creates in the audience. A better argument for the inherently dissonant nature of faith and religion could not be made.
The deathbed confrontation is a marvelous ending, which brings the relationship of these two characters to a head. Two different men speak openly with each other: Jesus, the unsure prophet; and Judas, the devoted revolutionary. The film (and the novel, although I haven’t read it completely) treat Judas Iscariot in a far better fashion that the canonical gospels do. Bear in mind that the novel and the film were produced long before the Gnostic Gospel of Judas became public knowledge. Rather than the reviled traitor of biblical lore, Last Temptation treats Judas as a firebrand, a warrior trying to free Israel from Roman occupation. The relationship between Judas and Jesus is shown to have gone back to childhood and the events of the film show a close bond grow between them, one based on genuine love and trust. Judas is shown as a reticent traitor, not wanting to betray his beloved friend and rabbi but understanding the necessity of the action.
It’s the devotion Judas shows throughout the film that makes his admonitions at the final confrontation so much more heartfelt and caustic. After listening to Jesus plead with him to commit betrayal, Judas is justifiably outraged to find his friend reneged on his obligation. It is Judas who reminds Christ of the necessity of the sacrifice, who reveals the golden-haired angel as Satan, and the Christ has led since the crucifixion removes all hope from the world. The penultimate scene where Dafoe crawls outside, in the midst of the Roman sacking of Jerusalem, and prays to return to the cross, shows us the regret and joy Christ is feeling in that moment. He makes allusions to himself being the prodigal son in his prayer, begging his father to return him to the cross.
I’m not a believer anymore. The concept of vicarious redemption is morally repugnant to me. But I enjoy a good story. The Last Temptation of Christ is a good story because it shows a human striving to meet the standards of the divine. Stories like this are ubiquitous in human culture. Scorsese and Kazantzakis managed to distill the mythic elements of the Christ narrative into someone more relatable, more human, and ultimately more praiseworthy.