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The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988)

At home, as part of the weekly movie watching club with Jason and Krystle.

Beyond the obvious amalgamated appeal in being a Christian who appreciates movies as an artform I cover my reasons pretty well in...

Beyond the immediate religious and moral introspection that inevitably accompanies the viewing of a film like The Last Temptation of Christ, came to me the realization of how artistically underused the sub-genre of the epic is. This is not to say that films which merely borrow epic stories but are really no more than visual spectacles are bad (who doesn't love a good show?), only that these deeply saturated stories are maybe not being as psychologically wrung out as they could be.

Perhaps the problem is an inherent one. Epic stories after all are defined by their highly significant events and achievements that take place on such a grand scale that intricate details such as emotion and psychology can't help but be overwhelmed. This is true of even our everyday lives: will my penalty shot go in? Will the girl I'm asking out say yes? These are questions that concern themselves with only the pragmatic outcome of a situation, and yet more fascinating than the often uncontrollable consequences of these actions is the mental, emotional and in many cases spiritual struggles we experience leading up to these decisive moments. The addition of an epic background to a character or story serves to elevate not only the stakes and physical scale of a story but also the resulting psychological burden weighing on its characters.

This might suggest why the war sub-genre - which naturally shares many qualities with the epic - has remained such a fascinating topic for serious filmmakers. Directors such as Stanley Kubrick (Paths of Glory, Full Metal Jacket), Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now), and Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line) have all used war as a backdrop to examine the inscrutable psychosomatic pressures it places on human beings. Everyone is faced with pressures and temptations everyday, but in war, the consequences of our reactions are amplified exponentially. How does a human being psychologically deal with being suddenly placed in a position where his actions could directly influence whether or not a person, a squad, or even an entire platoon lives or dies? How much more unfathomable and interesting then is the life of Jesus Christ, being subjected to the pressure of knowing that he held upon his both Godly and human shoulders the salvation of not only one or two people, but of all mankind, and not merely their lives, but their eternal souls? Do we now see why the truly epic story of Jesus can be considered a valuable work of art and perhaps "the greatest story ever told" even by some non-Christians?

Like so many other epic stories, the actions and consequences of Christ's story most often take precedence over psychology. Most filmic depictions of Jesus treat him as if he were solely a Godly creature, incapable of sin. Even in films that graphically depict Jesus’ all-too-human physical suffering such as The Passion of the Christ, one still comes away with the impression that he was psychologically impervious to not only sin but the very notion of temptation itself.

This is where The Last Temptation of Christ steps in and obtains its raison d'être, speculating on this seldom addressed aspect of Christianity: the struggles, trials and tribulations Jesus must have faced as a man with the same desires and temptations as everyone else without the luxury of slipping up, even once. A psychological epic which, by exposing Jesus’ doubts and fears to us, allows us to empathize and thus admire his eventual sacrifice even more than if he were simply God and was not subject to any of these human follies.

It’s ironic then that given the film and novel’s purported purpose, its greatest fault is that the character of Jesus is completely un-relatable, and palpably manipulated from high above, not by God but by Scorsese and the screenplay. Right from its outset, the film is about as subtle as a sledgehammer in presenting Jesus as a pathetic young man, making crosses for the Romans to crucify his own people in the hopes that by doing so God will hate him and leave him alone. There is no mistaking that this ain’t your momma’s Jesus.

This criticism has less to do with the authenticity of Jesus’ portrayal than with the simple filmic plausibility of the character and his motivations. When reviewers criticize Hollywood endings for being overly “sentimental”, they are not arguing that happy endings are inherently bad, but that these films have not earned their desired sentiment and have only achieved it through callous emotional manipulation. Even if one of these Hollywood endings were actually based on a true story, it would not make the film anymore artistically defensible as it is not so much a matter of absolute but emotional truth.

In Temptation, Jesus is not only completely indifferent to God but also to his fellow man. He acts only out of fear and has no compassion for humanity, only “pity”. Again, this is not so much morally reprehensible as it is empathetically unidentifiable. There is no artistic value in portraying a man who willingly sacrifices himself for the sake of parties he is scornful towards. And again, I am not speaking of pragmatic but emotional logic. We can all admire and understand a soldier who is afraid to be on the frontline and yet remains there because he believes in the cause. We can even empathize and learn from the soldier who believes in the cause and yet runs away out of fear. The artistry lies in the conflict and its reconciliation. But what are we to make of a soldier who is afraid to fight, is indifferent to the cause, but martyrs himself on its behalf regardless? Even with fear as a motivating factor, the Jesus of this film still resembles a sympathetic automaton at best. An ox may plough a field by instilling in it a fear of being whipped and we may feel sympathy for it, but if that is all there is to the story than it remains shallow at best, irresponsible and merely masochistic at worst (accusations that The Passion of the Christ has been charged with).

In a narrative film, character and plot should be inextricably linked and yet in Temptation they are hopelessly compartmentalized. That the plot still adheres to the established overarching progression of Jesus’ life only serves to further compound this problem of identification. The depiction of his miracles come across as more of an pre-requisite for "a Jesus film" and to history than it does as proof of his filmic growth as a character, much less his character’s spiritual growth. Jesus’ miracles such as the driving out of demons, the curing of the blind man, the raising of Lazarus etc. are haphazardly thrown in with no psychological or emotional connection to the character we are faced with in the scenes preceding and/or succeeding them. And while in and of itself, the penultimate scene where Jesus begs God the Father to place him back on the cross is quite moving, it is also manipulative and inconsistent with the – already unbelievable – character we have been subjected to throughout the film. Appropriately, the worst offence comes in the final scene where the film invokes what must be the most outrageous case of deus ex machina ever to successfully dupe the critics when Jesus begs God for forgiveness, instantly finds himself back on the cross, dies, and the film ends, all within the span of about one minute. Is there any question as to the extent to which such an ending would have been savaged by these same critics had it occurred in a commercial Hollywood film of less lofty ambitions?

The Last Temptation of Christ stands not as a more complete or superior telling of Jesus’ life as compared to the “kiddy” versions, but as an inferior counterpoint that is even less complex spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically. The film may provide a balance of sorts to the entire oeuvre of Jesus films, but in itself its nihilism places it further from the center - and in the opposite direction - than the most conservative of these other works. While it is unquestionably an “original” and “daring” work, these catchwords should not be confused or made synonymous with the attributes of quality or worth – despite society’s tendency to do so.

It's ironic that spectacular failures such as Temptation are most often the films that expose the seemingly contradictory nature of any system critics utilize in attempting to rate art empirically: Temptation is certainly not a great movie – nor a good movie for that matter – and yet I would not trade the experience of having watched it for a number of other “better made” films such as The Passion of the Christ. It is a thought-provoking film in that it provides a new perspective on the life of Jesus, but only in an inevitable tangential manner due solely to the plot – and I am not in the business of reviewing treatments or scripts nor of awarding bonus points for ambition, but of analyzing films as a whole. Let us not mistake thought-provoking ideas with thought-provoking movies. Temptation's worth is completely reliant upon its uniqueness. First place means very little when there is no one to compete with.

Perhaps the only saving grace that is solely inherent to the film - as opposed to being indebted to the novel and its ideas - is Peter Gabriel’s powerfully moving ethnic-themed score which repeatedly gives the film its best chance to transcend its otherwise cynical and pedestrian scale and achieve a befitting near-epic atmosphere, most notably during Christ’s crucifixion where Scorsese wisely allows it to dominate the scene.

Apart from the score, the few positive scenes or qualities of the film worth mentioning are all - unsurprisingly - of a more subtle and plain nature. The most significant event of the wedding scene as it pertains to the theme of the film is not the miracle of Jesus turning the water into wine, but rather the brief scene following it where he is seen dancing among the crowd. Scorsese is sure to focus his camera in on Jesus' joyous face, lost in the moment and momentarily free of all worries. It is a brief and subtle shot, but it does more to humanize him than any of the melodramatic doubting scenes that precede it. More significantly, it allows the film to display not only the follies of humanity Jesus was subject to, but its many innocent pleasures as well, dispelling any intellectual notions one might have had of him as being a monk-like figure who simply ate, slept, prayed and preached all day. Even otherwise normally subconscious touches such as having Jesus being disgusted by the smell emanating from Lazarus' tomb take on significance when viewed against the prevailing unshakably serene depictions of him. Is this not a more realistic portrayal of how Jesus might have reacted versus one in which he is completely unfazed by the stench of a rotting corpse? Is having a sense of smell not also a characteristic of the flesh?

It is fitting that the only scene which effectively captures the metaphysical struggles of Christ is his final one on the cross as he is tempted by the devil to escape his own martyrdom. It is only here at the film's climax that we come to finally and fully realize both the appropriateness and irony of the concept of temptation as it pertained to Christ's life. The devil does not attempt to deceive Jesus by tempting him with sex, drugs and rock & roll, but the simple promise of a normal life: to marry, settle down, have children, and grow old - the sort of "boring" life which the average person takes for granted and becomes accustomed to. The epiphany that comes with the realization that Jesus not only faced the same temptations as any other human, but was required to abstain absolutely from all of them, even those as innocent as a longing for a sedentary life, is deeply moving emotionally and spiritually. Appropriately, the eponymous last temptation of Christ serves not only as the film's most powerful and effective moment but also as an indication of the point at which the film begins to finally payoff on its potential. Unfortunately, by this point there are only a few minutes left in the film and unlike Jesus in the film, no manner of divine begging is capable of making us forget that the two hours preceding these scenes were not a dream, but a spectacularly disappointing reality of failed promise.

  1. Review - Decent Films (Steven Greydanus): While I disagree with Greydanus' opinion of the film being a complete washout, his is the best of the few pieces I was able to find that actually address its content rather than its controversy.

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