The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

Dir. Martin Scorsese. Starring Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Barbara Hershey

Only a bold film, one creeping up to outright foolhardiness, tries to tell its viewers what it’s “about” at the outset. Last Temptation does just that, beginning with a quote from the author of its source material, Nikos Kazantzakis, and then with words from the filmmakers. This is not meant to be about the Gospels, it reads; this is about the contradiction of what it would mean to be both man and God, and the struggle that would result. And while it notes many of the Gospel signposts that one inevitably hits in any story about Jesus, perhaps even touching on a few too many, the most important moments of the movie do align with what it’s “about.” For that reason, I find this movie at once profoundly moving and incredibly difficult to recommend to a stranger.

“God loves me—I know he loves me,” Jesus (Dafoe) thinks to himself. “I want him to stop.” Later on, after Jesus has retreated to a little desert monastery, he talks with one of the monks about his visions and the shrieking pains that claw into his eyeballs. The monk is envious of the clarity that Jesus has been given, or at least appears to have been given, by God. He admits that sometimes he has grave doubts because he has never known the presence of God the way that Jesus claims to know it. Jesus feels otherwise: “You think it’s a blessing to know what God wants?” This is the first phase of Jesus in Last Temptation: denial. We find out that what his buddy Judas (Keitel) decries as collaboration with the Romans is Jesus’ childish attempt to get God to become so mad at him that he leaves him alone. Jesus makes crosses for Romans to put Zealots. Jesus burns with lust for the town whore, Mary Magdalene (Hershey), but refuses to take the steps which might pull her away from that life, or to admit the feeling he has long had for her. Other phases will manifest themselves over the course of the movie: Jesus gets in touch with his loving heart, Jesus gesticulates with the axe to cut down the rotting tree of society, Jesus decides to die messianic at God’s behest. Each of them is a very different man, down to the way Dafoe looks. In his “love everybody” stage, Jesus has short (by ’80s standards) hair, wavy but not lengthy. Dafoe frequently seems a little shrunken in this movie, and his persona in the “love” stage is the least charismatic. He does not draw much in the way of crowds, and those crowds he does draw tend to be a little less likely to adulate him. Judas will point out that a messiah should sound like the Baptist (Andre Gregory), who is surrounded by swaying nudes and leaping hirsute youths, and whose message is unwavering in its predictions of catastrophic upheaval. And despite his early disputes with the Baptist, a month in the desert cures Jesus of his hippie-dippie message. His hair lengthens, his beard lengthens. In scenes to come, the most bulldog aspects of Dafoe’s face are brought out as he snarls at the unbelievers in Nazareth. On the whole, this is one of those silent callbacks to the Gospels, which the movie claims not to put too much weight on; for the son of the unchanging God, for being part of said unchanging God, it seems like Jesus is a different person in different chapters, different verses.

Even the Biblical accounts of Jesus’s temptation in the desert seem a little hurried. For forty days, we read in Mark, Jesus is in the desert with the animals and the unexplained temptations of Satan. Matthew and Luke detail the temptations of bread, of divine intervention, of power, and then skip ahead themselves. In a movie with the words “Last Temptation” in the title, it seems relevant to see some of the earlier temptations, and what results is probably the movie’s best sequence. Jesus draws a circle in the stony earth and tells God he will not leave until God has spoken to him. A black snake with the voice of Mary Magdalene appears first, appealing to his lust for the flesh. “After ten days,” Jesus reports, “the hunger went away.” A lion with the voice of Judas comes next, reading into Jesus’ previously unspoken desire for power, arguing that when Jesus reports on God and the Kingdom of Heaven, he is speaking about his own earthly desire. Come into my circle, Jesus challenges the lion, so that I can rip your tongue out. Only the last one confounds Jesus for more than a few moments; he calls the pillar of fire “archangel,” which is true enough if one subscribes to a Paradise Lost view of the world; Satan has come personally to make his pitch. The temptations themselves are certainly strong enough; what stands out is the immense simplicity of the setting. Dirt, stone, Dafoe, snake, lion, fire. The film is, at this critical juncture, completely focused on what a slowly starving Jesus sees while he waits for God to talk to him; we are awfully close to him while he’s bound himself to his circle, for he is otherwise alone. The movie takes its time with Jesus in the desert, and it is immensely satisfying. Aside from Satan telling him that they’ll meet again, the most important thing to take from this encounter is that Jesus takes signs from God seriously. An axe and an apple tree appear at the end of Jesus’  time in the desert, drawing him out of his circle. When he is, years later, on the edge of leading a revolt against the temple, a sudden case of stigmata will convince him to break off with the same swiftness that he attacks the tree.

For all the fuss made about the part where Jesus walks off the cross and does normal people things, it’s surprising how little of the movie is devoted to it. (One also wants to note that the movie ends with Jesus dying on the cross, which is, as any Christian will tell you, half of the point.) The scenes of him being beaten, fitted with the crown of thrones, walked through the streets, nailed to his cross, and left there are sensory devastation. (David Bowie is also in this movie for a few minutes, raising the real question: why didn’t Bowie play Jesus?) The people in the sound department did an incredible job; there is a brick wall that we run into over and over again while Jesus looks around, too much in pain to be desolate, on the cross. When it fades away and reveals a young blonde girl in a simple dress who tells Jesus that he is not the Messiah, who removes the nails from his body, it is a great relief. The noise, the pulsing wild sounds, are gone. They are the closest representation of physical pain that we can have as viewers, for so few of us choose to be crucified anymore. No one stops him as he is taken away from Golgotha, indicating perhaps that the world has stopped.

And yet the world seems to go on in the same crude ways, no matter how different Jesus’ return to carpentry and discovery of family is from the story of his death and resurrection. Jesus’ guardian angel shows him that his marriage to Magdalene is to take place on a charming hillside. She is pregnant; she dies in a white light before Jesus’ child can be born. No matter; he has more with Mary and Martha both after his guardian angel informs him that all women are a single entity, one person with many faces. (This should be a dead giveaway that not everything is right in Palestine, but Scorsese coolly slips in the broad erasures effected by the patriarchal world of Jesus and his disciples.) There’s a run-in with Paul (Harry Dean Stanton), who claims to have had the same experience en route to Damascus as the Biblical one; like the Biblical Paul, there are distinct differences between the world according to Jesus and according to the convert. How can what you preach have any weight, Jesus asks, if I’m standing here? The weight is in the people, Paul says (though not quite as smoothly), and if you were to tell them otherwise they’d rip you apart. Christianity has moved past him; given just one generation, the sacrifice enters legend and takes on a force beyond the personal effort made by the Christ himself.

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