Michael C here to reflect on a cinematic milestone. This month marks twenty-five years since the release of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Growing up Catholic I was taught that Jesus was both human and divine, yet the depictions of Jesus I was presented with invariably paid minimal lip service to his human side while emphasizing the holy. Flicks like King of Kings and The Greatest Story Ever Told presented a Christ with all the humanity of a figure on a stained glass window. The Jesus in these movies is forever staring off into the distance, beatific smile on his face, arms outstretched, making proclamations in the gentle tones of an easy listening DJ. Even his words seem to be walking on water.
It wasn’t until college when I saw Scorsese’s version that I finally grasped what it meant for Jesus to have the same frailties as the rest of us, rather than have a Jesus who appears human but who has none of the weaknesses of humanity. The troubled, doubting savior portrayed by Willem Dafoe in Last Temptaion bears little resemblance to the star of those comforting but shallow Biblical pageants. [more...]
To show their appreciation to the great director for making a compelling and beautiful film about the core tenets of Christianity, many of the faithful greeted Last Temptation with one of the biggest controversies in cinema history. Stoked by professional outrage mongers, protesters (few of whom, needless to say, had actually seen the movie) boycotted and threatened until many theater chains refused to show the film. By the end religious extremists wielding Molotov cocktails attacked a Paris theater showing the movie while security personnel were opening Scorsese’s mail for him.
Viewed now, a quarter century later, the disparity between the earnest spiritual searching of the actual film and the sordid stigma of its reputation is so drastic it leads one to wonder: If it was released in 2013 instead of 1988 would The Last Temptation of Christ still cause such an outrage?
I can think of a few reasons why it would not.
For one thing, it’s easy to imagine how today’s Catholic Church would be eager to embrace a work that could be read as an endorsement of the faith, especially one made by a cultural figure as towering as Scorsese. The intervening years has seen an influx of religious films like Dogma, Da Vinci Code, and Religilous, works that range from the flippant and silly to outright hostile towards organized religion. Last Temptation, conversely, is nothing if not the work of a sincere religious searching, a fact that could help Christian leaders to overlook some of its rougher edges.
Furthermore, protesters would have a much harder time dominating the conversation than they did in 1988. Not only do legions of online film writers have an outlet to defend the film and place its button-pushing scenes in all-important context, but online streaming could also guarantee the film’s availability to open-minded viewers. Anger toward the film would surely dissipate as access to the real thing contradicted the warped version of the film peddled by the film’s detractors.
Or maybe this is all wishful thinking.
Although The Passions of the Christ is an entirely different animal, the uproar it provoked shows that a religious film is still capable of galvanizing public opinion. And while it’s tough to imagine any reasonable, thoughtful person being provoked to fury by Last Temptation it still provides plenty of ammunition to an outrage machine that never tires of picking on Hollywood and never passes on an opportunity to get its followers blood boiling.
For one thing, while all religious movies play fast and loose with the Gospels, Last Temptation is especially brazen in its re-interpretation. By including a brief scene where Jesus participates in a man's crucifixion, as well as a notorious fantasy scene which depicts him in a sexual context, the film provides ideal rallying points for those folks who are always on the lookout for a reason to be offended. Why bother to understand the logic of a film – and it makes perfect sense that a human Jesus could be tempted by the fantasy of a completely mortal life – when you can just point to a few fleeting moments and yell, “Blasphemy!”
I don’t suppose The Last Temptation of Christ will ever completely escape its association with controversy. But after two and a half decades it's clear that the film has survived attempts to tear it down and can now be appreciated and pondered far from the shouts of self-appointed moral crusaders. It will never be as popular as cheap, easily digestible religious entertainments, but it belongs on a list with films like Dreyer’s Ordet or Pasolini’s The Gospel Accoring to Saint Matthew. Movies that truly capture the awe at the heart of faith.