The Last Temptation of Christ: An Essay in Film Criticism and Faith
By Steven D. Greydanus
Martin Scorsese’s controversial 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ is one of those perilous movies, like Titanic or Dogma, that the critic reviews at his own risk: It is he himself, not the film, that is really being judged. In one way, of course, this is quite reasonable; the reader naturally wants to have a sense of who the critic is, and reviews of controversial films can provide a convenient index of his approach and style.
However, when passions run high enough, inevitably some readers make a litmus-test out of the critic’s conclusions, too often in the process ignoring the actual substance of the review, the reasons given for those conclusions. In particular, a critic who faults a movie like The Last Temptation of Christ can expect to be dismissed as a Fundamentalist and accused of judging the film on doctrinaire grounds rather than approaching it aesthetically and on its own terms; while a critic who defends it can expect to be dismissed as a Modernist and accused of condoning blasphemy and heresy.
Why, then, would a critic such as myself, writing years after the fact, deliberately choose to subject himself to such a litmus test? Why would I write about this film when I could just as easily choose to write about some other?
For the same reason that a scientist who is also a believer is drawn to address apparent conflicts between science and faith. The Last Temptation of Christ, an ambitious film from a director of significant stature, based upon a serious novel by a talented writer, met with widespread acclaim and praise among film critics, yet drew enormous negative attention in many religious circles, often from people who hadn’t seen the film and were not in a position to frame their objections critically.
Neither side has much use for the other’s opinion. Yet I have one foot in each camp — indeed, both feet in both camps, since I write film criticism informed by faith, rather than compartmentalizing or partitioning my beliefs when I review a film. In a case like this, where critical thought and religious opinion seem irreconcilable, I feel it is necessary to offer a response that is both critically responsible and spiritually sound — if only to satisfy myself (if no one else) that such a response is indeed possible; that critical perspective and orthodox judgment are not somehow exclusive.
At the same time, I have no intention of trying to stake out some sort of middle ground or happy compromise between the critics’ acclaim and the religionists’ censure. My own finding is that one of the two sides is right, and the other is wrong. I will try to show in this essay which side went wrong, and how, and to explain it in a way that should make sense both to believers and to critics and film lovers, as well as those who, like myself, fall into both categories.
Envisioning the humanity of Jesus
The film opens with a disclaimer stating that the film is "not based on the gospels," but upon the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis (a moot point, since the novel itself is based, however distantly, on the gospels). Kazantzakis’s novel is a speculative exploration of the concept of Christ’s dual nature, focusing particularly on his humanity.
Now, Christian theology teaches that Jesus Christ was fully human as well as fully divine; and certainly there is nothing objectionable about trying to evoke or express in art the humanity of Christ. A work of art, a film or novel or painting, that evokes the truth of Christ’s humanity is a good and noble thing, even if it doesn’t directly address the subject of his divinity. A recognizably human portrait of Jesus — for example, one that envisions him being capable of suffering weakness, loneliness, fear, exhaustion; of becoming exasperated with his disciples, or of having a good time at a wedding party — all of this can be quite valid and worthwhile.
Moreover, the mystery of Jesus’ dual nature is one that no Christian can claim to fully understand or imagine. In particular the experience of being a mortal man who was also God in the flesh is one we cannot begin to grasp. Unanswered questions exist that leave room for a range of different ways of envisioning the person of Christ in drama and art.
For all these reasons, we must not be too quick to judge any particular portrait of Christ merely because it challenges our expectations or makes us uncomfortable, or because it doesn’t immediately evoke his divinity. After all, Jesus himself often confounded the expectations of his contemporaries, and didn’t necessarily impress most of them as being divine. Indeed, if any believer today were somehow able to see and hear him as his contemporaries did, the experience might not immediately confirm his faith — indeed, it might even give him a moment’s pause.
On the other hand, while Christian belief doesn’t tell us everything about what Jesus was like, much less what it was like to be him, it does give us certain insights into what he wasn’t. We may be unable to fully apprehend human nature united to divinity, but we can easily understand that certain things would be incompatible with this union. Christian belief teaches that Jesus shared our humanity, but not our fallenness and fallibility. Not only did he not sin, he didn’t suffer from our concupiscent appetites, our disordered and inflamed desires. He was tempted as we are — he could feel hunger during a fast, or dread on the eve of his passion — but his will was not pulled to and fro by wayward passions. He may, in his humanity, have had limited knowledge or insights, but he could not be deceived or confused into believing or teaching anything contrary to divine truth. At no time did he suffer doubts about his divine nature or messianic identity.
Imperfect art and the perfection of God
Does a dramatic portrayal of Christ’s humanity have to be perfectly compatible with every article of faith about him in order to have any value? No, not necessarily. Even an imperfect vision of Christ — one that doesn’t entirely correspond to known truths of faith, that contains elements that are clearly erroneous — could still be worthwhile and valuable, if it remains, on the whole, generally evocative of important truths about Christ.
That doesn’t seem like too much to ask or expect: That a work of art be, on the whole, generally evocative of the truth about its subject; that it be reasonably true to that subject, that it not turn the subject into something antithetical to itself. A movie about the man Jesus may have value if is shows Jesus to be recognizably and authentically human, while at least minimally leaving room for his divine nature, remaining at least compatible with Christian belief in his deity — in a word, while not turning him into an fallible, fallen man, one who could not be God.
A Jesus who commits sins — who even thinks he commits sins, who talks a great deal about needing "forgiveness" and paying with his life for his own sins; a Jesus who himself speaks blasphemy and idolatry, calling fear his "god" and talking about being motivated more by fear than by love; who has an ambivalent at best relationship with the Father, even trying to merit divine hatred so that God will leave him alone — all of this is utterly antithetical to Christian belief and sentiment. This is not merely focusing on Jesus’ humanity, this is effectively contradicting his divinity.
But the Jesus of Last Temptation does all of the above things, and more. The film gives us a human Jesus, but a Jesus of fallible, fallen humanity — a Jesus who could not be God. This is evident, not just in the sequences containing obvious blasphemy, such as the scene where Jesus the carpenter explains that he makes crosses for the Romans and helps crucify his fellow Jews so that God will hate him and leave him alone; or even in the scenes depicting Jesus’ persistent doubts and confusion about the nature of his identity and mission, or whether he is the Messiah at all; but everywhere you turn in the film. The fact is, Willem Dafoe’s Jesus has hardly a scene — hardly two lines of dialogue put together — in which the falseness of the character is not the dominant fact about him.
One scene that had religious critics up in arms depicts Jesus sitting all afternoon in a room outside the bedroom of a prostitute (Mary Magdalene), where he can both see and hear her servicing a long queue of customers. The movie’s defenders pointed out that nothing in the scene indicates Jesus is supposed to be moved to lust by what he sees and hears, so why couldn’t a perfect man do what Jesus is represented as doing? Yet even putting aside the question of lust (and of Jesus’ general state throughout the film of apparent obssession with Mary Magdalene), there is still the matter of ordinary modesty; not to mention the obligation to avoid situations that would reasonably give scandal (since Jesus appears to be simply waiting his turn like Mary’s customers).
Again, in the gospels there is an episode in which a crowd of listeners report to Jesus that his mother and brothers have come to see him, and Jesus responds to the crowd, "Who are my mother and brothers? Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and brother" (cf. Mk 3:31-35). The version of this episode in Last Temptation has Jesus saying to his mother "I have no family," and turning his back on her as she breaks down in tears. Is this compatible with basic honor for father and mother — a virtue that Jesus himself emphasized was neglected in his own culture (cf. Mk 7:10-13)?
Admittedly, these are small things compared to the sweeping falsifications of Jesus’ perpetual loving union with the Father; yet emotionally these "small things" may have a greater impact on the viewer because they strike at things that are closer to home: sexual purity, honor for parents. None of us really knows what Jesus’ relationship with his Father was really like; but we all understand that we ought to refrain from things like denying our filial responsibilities to our parents, or witnessing other people’s carnal activities. The falsity of the characterization of Jesus extends to such details as these, not just the big things. Throw out the objectionable parts, and there’s virtually nothing left.
Judas the hero; John the Pentecostal
Nor is it only the portrayal of Jesus himself that is antithetical to Christian thought. Virtually every characterization, every aspect of the film is deliberately iconoclastic, self-consciously contrary to traditional Christian understanding, calculated for shock value. First and foremost is the reinterpretation of Judas Iscariot (Harvey Keitel) as a principled hero, a man who ultimately "betrays" Jesus only because Jesus orders him to do so over Judas’ own tortured objections. When faithful Judas demands to know whether if Jesus himself, were he in Judas’ place, would be able to betray a beloved master, Jesus replies (in a moment typical of the film’s sensibilities), "No, I couldn’t. That’s why God gave me the easier job [i.e., dying on the cross]."
Throughout the movie Judas acts almost as Jesus’ conscience. As the film opens we find Judas patriotically upbraiding Jesus for collaborating with Rome by his cross-making. When Jesus begins his ministry, Judas follows him conditionally, warning him that if he betrays his mission Judas will kill him. Finally, in the climactic scene, it is a stern, prophetic Judas (or a dream-representation of him) that recalls Jesus to the necessity of his dying on the cross.
Once again, there’s nothing wrong with trying to humanize Judas to an extent, or give him understandable motivations. The filmmaker can even make us empathize with him to the point of feeling that we too would be capable of doing what he did. But what he did, in the end, has to be wrong; and Keitel’s Judas never manifests anything like corruption, self-interest, or pettiness. Jesus is the main character and protagonist here, but a case could be made that Judas is the film’s true hero, or at least its most idealized character.
Then there’s John the Baptist (Andre Gregory), who is oddly much older than Jesus and doesn’t seem to know him, though they were cousins of some sort. John’s ministry in the wilderness resembles a hysterical-ecstatic Pentecostal revival meeting, with John striding maniacally about spouting dark Old Testament apocalyptic (nothing of his actual themes of repentance or the kingdom of heaven), while people gibber and shake and inexplicably stand around naked.
St. Peter is a minor character, but whenever he is onscreen he is invariably doing or saying the wrong thing (as in fact the real Peter often did, but he also did profoundly right things that never figure here), inviting Judas’ scorn. And, while there is a basis in tradition for representing Mary Magdalene as a prostitute, there’s no justification for Jesus’ apparent obsession with her, or her attempted seduction of him.
The last temptation: Modernist theology
There is also a very significant appearance by St. Paul that occurs in a difficult, extended dreamlike sequence at the end of the film often been described as a vision or dream sequence. (What follows is spoiler intensive.) The sequence begins with Jesus on the cross seemingly being approached by a young girl, who tells him that he has suffered enough; that he has proven himself faithful, and doesn’t actually have to die after all. (She makes an interesting case for this, citing the precedent of Abraham being told at the last minute not to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah.)
We then see this girl gently remove the nails transfixing Christ to the cross, tenderly kiss his wounds, and take him down off the cross and through the midst of the crowd, who seem unaware that anything has happened, that the cross is now empty. Jesus is led to a house where Mary Magdalene waits to marry him. (Later in the dream-sequence, Mary Magdalene dies, and the girl takes Jesus to wed another Mary [the sister of Martha], cryptically telling him: "There is only one woman in the world, with different faces." Is this possibly meant to imply, as some critical opinion suggests, that these "Marys" are both a sort of surrogate — perhaps for still another Mary, the mother of Jesus? Could there perhaps be an Oedipal theme here?)
Much later in the time-frame of the dream sequence, an aged Judas appears to recall the now-dying Jesus to his obligation to die on the cross; and Jesus responds by rejecting the dream-world and crying out to God to allow him to return to the cross — whereupon he opens his eyes, finds himself crucified, and triumphantly shouts the famous last words.
(Incidentally, I’m giving the movie the benefit of the doubt by regarding this whole episode as a "dream sequence" and assuming that it all occurs in Jesus’ mind, while in fact his body never actually leaves the cross. However, it’s entirely possible to suppose that Jesus really is brought down from the cross, that all these events really do happen, and that when the aged Jesus cries out to God, God literally sends him back in time to the moment that he was taken down from the cross. In that case, all these objections become far more troubling.)
It is during this dream-life that Jesus encounters the apostle Paul, whom he finds preaching the gospel of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, even though of course in this dream-world those events never occurred.
When Jesus angrily contradicts Paul’s claims, Paul initially maintains the truth of his message; but before long he is essentially endorsing the notion of Modernist theologians that the gospel message was essentially "invented" by Paul himself, and that the faith and hope people draw from the idea of Christ’s resurrection is more important that the historical truth. This, of course, flagrantly contradicts the real St. Paul’s famous dictum: "If Christ is not raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain… If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins, [and] those who have fallen asleep in Christ [i.e., who died as believers] have perished" (1 Cor. 15:16-18).
Although this strange episode occurs in what is ostensibly a dream sequence, Paul’s argument seems to represent Kazantzakis’s (or Scorsese’s) idea of what could have or would have happened if Jesus were not raised from the dead. Essentially they are introducing the idea that "faith" is more important than Jesus’ resurrection. What is the function of having Paul say these things, even in a dream sequence, other than simply introducing these ideas into the film? If they merely wanted to show Paul preaching the gospel in order to suggest the necessity of Jesus completing his mission, why not follow up by having Jesus’ denial of Paul’s message leave Paul shattered and despairing, or at least flatly disbelieving Jesus’ claims?
The power of imagery
What about a notorious scene with Jesus and Mary Magdalene, now presumably (in the dream continuity) married, making love? In principle, once you grant the premise of Jesus being tempted with a vision of ordinary life after the crucifixion, a case can of course be made that this sequence reasonably belongs to the logic of the scenario. Since they are supposed to be married, it is all theoretically lawful; and the actual imagery is non-graphic.
Despite this, in practice I myself was deeply disturbed and repulsed by the sheer visual-emotional impact of a close-up depiction of Jesus Christ passionately kissing a woman in bed. Roger Ebert, in his review of Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, criticized that film’s use of actors in blackface makeup — even though the actors themselves were black and the device was intended as a critique of racism — arguing that the sheer racist association of the image itself overwhelms the context and dramatic purpose. Watching this scene in Last Temptation, I had a similar reaction: I was just blown away by the wrongness of the very picture of Jesus kissing a woman.
That the picture was part of a "temptation" scene doesn’t mend matters at all; the sheer force of the image is greater than its context. It’s like one person quoting another person as having uttered a particularly graphic obscene remark that you’d just as soon not have heard: The person repeating the remark may not be endorsing what was said; but he still put the image in your head. Scorsese might not have been endorsing the picture of Jesus engaging in carnal activity, since it was part of the tempter’s scenario; but he still put the picture on the screen.
Almost as disturbing to me, in retrospect, was the fact that this tempter, in the guise of a young woman, is shown, seemingly, not only drawing the nails from Christ’s extremities, but also tenderly kissing the sacred wounds — wounds that are the object of such deep devotion among Catholics. Essentially we have here a picture of Satan kissing the sacred wounds. I could probably imagine an image more odious to Catholic sensibilities… but if it got put into a movie, I’d rather not see it.
Message over medium
In short, my conclusion is that the religious critics who think Last Temptation a bad film are correct. Does this mean that the fans and film critics who think it a creative masterpiece are wrong? I’ve made my case for the film’s spiritual bankruptcy, but what about its value as art?
It’s quite true that a film can be morally or spiritually objectionable and still have significant artistic or entertainment value. That’s the whole point of my specialized ratings system. I had grave moral objections to The Cell, American Beauty, and Being John Malkovich, but I gave them all high marks for artistic/entertainment value. Whatever other faults these movies may have, each of them is in its own way interesting to watch. Parts of them I might even want to see again.
Yet, for me at least, The Last Temptation of Christ is a complete wash. Not because of a directorial failure on Scorsese’s part, but simply because no director in the world could possibly make this material into a film worth sitting through for its own sake.
Sometimes it’s possible to prescind from a movie’s offensive use of themes and appreciate its achievements in spite of its moral failings. One can bracket one’s objections to the Marxist propaganda in The Battleship Potemkin, or the racist celebration of the original Ku Klux Klan in D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, and still value the striking imagery of the famous Odessa Steps sequence from the former, or the groundbreaking editing in the climactic chase scene of the latter.
But I for one don’t see how it’s possible to bracket all the objections that must be raised to all that is anti-Christian in Last Temptation, and still have anything worthwhile left over to appreciate or enjoy. Past a certain point, objectionability obliterates all hope or desire of approaching a work as art or entertainment. No level of production values or technically proficient filmmaking could make it worthwhile to watch a movie that indulged in child pornography, or that relentlessly celebrated the Holocaust, or that overtly romanticized the degradation and abasement of women. Cross a certain line, and message overwhelms medium, substance overwhelms style, what you have to say drowns out how you might be saying it.
Last Temptation goes way over that line. Poisonous morally and spiritually, it is also worthless as art or entertainment, at least on any theory of art as an object of appreciation. As an artifact of technical achievement, it may be well made; but as a film, it is devoid of redeeming merit.
I find myself reflecting on the significance of the fact that this film represents the collaboration of a writer of Greek Orthodox heritage and a filmmaker of Italian Catholic background. Only artists so steeped from childhood in the rich profundity of Christian tradition could possibly create something so profoundly antithetical to that tradition, so deeply heretical and blasphemous. It could never have been made by an ordinary nonreligious or atheistic filmmaker, or even by a lapsed Protestant.