Much controversy has surrounded the movie, “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Directed by Martin Scorsese, a Roman Catholic and former seminarian, this film, based upon Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel of the same name, has met with indignation from religious and artistic critics alike. What’s to be said for it?
Negatively, it has been criticized for being too long, too gory, too irreverent, of having weak dialogue and weird characterization, and of portraying a Christ who appears more interested in power than in love and who seems more intent on winning converts to an earthly kingdom that in revealing the heart of God. More specifically, the film has been especially criticized for portraying a Christ who is radically tempted to abandon his mission and who has a prolonged fantasy of getting off the cross, marrying a number of women, making love, raising children, and burying himself in ordinary life. The value of each of these criticisms is a point of debate. Certainly the movie suffers from a number of weaknesses, artistic as well as religious.
With that being said, however, it is, in my mind, a good movie, despite its weaknesses.
First of all, it is not an irreverent film. Some parts are earthy, shocking, and offensive to piety. But Jesus’ life was, in fact, those things. It is quite simply impossible to picture God in human flesh, beset with human weaknesses, living among human persons, without offending and shocking. The film could have been more aesthetically sensitive at times, but, in the end, it is in fact quite a fundamentalistic portrayal of Christ’s life.
Second, vis-a-vis the criticism that it is too gory and suffers from weak dialogue and weird (e.g., John the Baptist) characterization, an important clarification needs to be made. Kazantzakis intended the novel to be more of a painting than a story. This is an artist’s picture of Jesus, not a novelist’s or an evangelist’s one. This explains the excess of form, the gore, the lack of dialogue, the exaggerated characterizations, and the overall reliance on picture rather than word. “The Last Temptation of Christ” is not a biography of Jesus, it is a painting of him.
Finally, and most importantly, what’s to be said about the temptation of Christ to get off the cross, marry a series of women, make love, raise children, and bury himself in life’s ordinariness? To my mind, reviewers in general have trivialized and misunderstood both Kazantzakis’ and Scorsese’s conception here. By and large, this has been seen as a sexual temptation, pure and simple – Jesus, the frustrated celibate, longing for the fling he never had! This misses entirely the point and, precisely, renders the movie cheap and offensive. But that is not what Kazantzakis and Scorsese had in mind.
During the movie the temptation that Jesus is fighting is one which would have him move away from his displacement, his baptism. In essence, the temptation is this: At one level of his person, Jesus feels himself extraordinarily called by God. That extraordinary call, precisely, spells the death of all that is ordinary – home, wife, children, cooking, domestic cares, family celebrations and arguments. At another level, Jesus literally lusts after precisely the humility of the ordinary. He wants to be an ordinary person, with ordinary pleasures, ordinary joys, and ordinary concerns. He wants to marry, father children, build a home, raise sheep, work in a carpenter’s shop, and relate to the domestic God more than to the monastic one.
Kazantzakis, himself, describes the temptation like this: “Jesus grew pale, closed his eyes, saw Magdalene’s firm body along the shores of Lake Gennesaret, saw her gaze toward the river Jordan and sigh. She extended her hand – she was seeking him; and her bosom was filled with children: his own.
“He had only to twitch the corner of his eye, to give a sign, and all at once: what happiness! How his life would change, sweeten, become more human! This was the way, this! He would return to Nazareth, to his mother’s house, would become reconciled with his brothers.
“It was nothing but youthful folly – madness – to want to save the world and die for mankind. But thanks to Magdalene, God bless her, he would be cured; he would return to his workshop, take up once more his old beloved craft, once more make plows, cradles, and troughs; he would have children and become a human being.
“He would work the whole week and on Saturdays go to the synagogue in clean garments woven for him by his wife and he would sit and listen peacefully and indifferently while the seething, half-insane Scribes and Pharisees sweated and shivered to interpret the Holy Scriptures.
“He would snigger and look at them with sympathy. Where would they ever end up, these theologians! He was interpreting Holy Scripture quietly and surely by taking a wife, having children, by constructing plows, cradles, and troughs…”(Page 251)
The very word, church, “ecclesia,” means displacement, displacement from the ordinary. Christ’s temptation in this movie is, in fact, the perennial temptation of all of us, namely, to fight the extraordinary call of God because of our longing for the humility of the ordinary.
Perhaps Kazantzakis and Scorsese could have made this clearer, but that was their intent and, understood in that sense, this movie, despite its weaknesses, is a deeply religious one.