Released this week in August 1988, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ is, by its very design, a challenging work of art. It’s a film that engendered considerable controversy three decades ago and even now when people talk about it, there’s a tendency to apply conventional Western thinking and set up a false — or at least greatly oversimplified — dichotomy between the film’s detractors and its supporters.

It doesn’t really give a full or fair picture to have someone who self-identifies as non-religious defend the film as a grand artistic achievement while summing up the controversy with fiery old stories of picket lines that formed outside movie theaters and death threats Scorsese received. What gets dismissed there is the whole spectrum of moderate responses from a wide contingent of people who wouldn’t necessarily fall into one of two camps whereby you either love the film as a passionate cinephile or hate it as an overzealous fundamentalist.

Like Scorsese’s other, more recent religious film, the quietly devastating Silence, The Last Temptation of Christ is a movie that stirs profound ambivalence (going by the Google definition of “ambivalence” as “the state of having mixed feelings or contradictory ideas about something.”) Over the years, my struggle with the film has been one of biblical proportions, like the Old Testament figure of Jacob wrestling the angel.

A Dream of Domesticity

If you haven’t seen the movie and aren’t aware of what happens in it or why exactly it was so controversial beyond the obvious spoiler that, well, Jesus dies, maybe now’s a good time to go watch it and let it hit you with the full impact that it had on people back in 1988. Then come back here and let’s sort through the ensuing aesthetic and/or spiritual confusion together.

Suffice to say, The Last Temptation of Christ is a movie where Jesus says, “I have Lucifer inside of me,” but also, “I’m God!” I’d have to go back and watch Willem Dafoe’s eyes closely to see if he actually does it without batting the proverbial eyelid, but you get the point. It’s a movie where Christ comes down from the cross and we see him living out a mortal life full of earthly pleasures: making love with his wife Mary Magdalene (played by Barbara Hershey), impregnating her, then taking two more wives and having children with them after she’s gone.

This is revealed to be a fantasy sequence — a trick of the Devil, the movie’s titular temptation — and The Last Temptation of Christ does include a disclaimer at the beginning that it is “not based on the Gospels, but upon the fictional exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict.” However, it’s easy to forget that disclaimer when you’re a person of the religious persuasion, and you’ve been swept up in the movie for over two hours, and now, suddenly, the last 35 minutes present this new, extremely unorthodox imagery.

The love-making scene between Jesus and Mary Magdalene is a dream of domesticity, one where Magdalene’s excited whisper, “We can have a child,” is retroactively tempered by the knowledge that this can never be. It adds poignancy to the sacrifice on the cross because now we see what the human side of this fictionalized version of Jesus gave up. Maybe Scorsese underestimated the power of that imagery, or maybe he understood fully the provocative nature of it and that was what drew him to the project in the first place. Whatever the case, it’s a lot to digest.

This wouldn’t be the only case where Scorsese flipped the script on the conventional Christian narrative. What makes The Last Temptation of Christ so tricky and troubling for some believers, perhaps, is that it borrows things from the Gospels, but then its “fictional exploration” takes the form of a vivid inversion of the Gospels. Everything is upside down, like the cross used to crucify Saint Peter.

Judas and Jesus

Take Judas, for instance, who is rather opaque in his Biblical portrayal beyond being “the betrayer” who commits suicide (in two different ways; the Bible’s inconsistent like that). In the film, Harvey Keitel’s Judas is the best disciple, the one who is good, faithful, and strong.

Before 1988, there were other Judas-friendly films about Jesus, like the 1973 rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar (which is celebrating its 45th anniversary this week). That film sought to explore, in song, the character of Judas and add some dimension to him — making him more sympathetic and deepening his relationship with Jesus so that there was more pathos behind that notorious betrayal for 30 pieces of silver. Yet The Last Temptation of Christ takes this Judas revisionism to another level in that it makes Jesus seem utterly passive, at times self-loathing, even feeble, and reliant on Judas for strength.

He’s a man filled with crippling doubts. Seeing Jesus build crosses for the Romans prior to his ministry is definitely a new twist on the accepted image of him as a carpenter. At one point in the movie, Judas actually shouts, “Traitor!” at Jesus. It’s as if we’re watching a stage production of Shakespeare’s Othello where the scheming betrayer Iago has now become the virtuous hero.

In the 21st century, framing a story around the villain, making him or her the protagonist and the traditional hero the antagonist, is ground well-trod on television and in movies. That’s not exactly what’s going on here, but it’s a similar role reversal and I don’t know that one like it had ever been done to such highly visible effect with a pair of religious icons before The Last Temptation of Christ.

In Silence, Scorsese would toy with the Jesus and Judas dynamic again, only this time, both figures would be embodied as dual aspects of the same character: the Jesuit missionary Rodriguez, played by Andrew Garfield.

The Apostle Paul

Another Biblical character that the film radically reimagines is the Apostle Paul, who was recently played by James Faulkner (alongside Jim Caviezel as Saint Luke) in the faith-based movie Paul, Apostle of Christ. Paul’s conversion tale, as told by the New Testament, is widely known through literary osmosis even by those who never attended Sunday school. Under the name of Saul, he started out persecuting Christians, only to be blinded on the road to Damascus and later have the scales fall from his eyes, at which point he was baptized and took the name of Paul as a sign that he had been reborn into Christ.

Almost half the books in the New Testament are attributed to Paul. His epistles, or letters, helped form the backbone of early Christianity and the Church as we know it today, so in some ways, he’s a figure whose importance to the Church is second only to that of Jesus himself.

The movie shows us a Paul, played by Harry Dean Stanton, who is a murderous opportunist. He’s the zealot who slips a knife into the gut of the resurrected Lazarus. It’s a moment that seems tailor-made to foster audience resentment for this character, who undoes the beauty of a divine miracle. At this point, viewers invested in the story are leaning forward in their seats, inwardly hissing at Paul’s villainy, thinking, “No! You killed Lazarus! Who does that?!”

When Jesus, now an aging father with grey hair, later runs across Paul preaching in public and he angrily confronts Paul about the lie he is selling — namely, that of a virgin-born Jesus who conquered death — the blustery, disingenuous Paul stops bloviating just long enough to take Jesus aside and say:

“Look around you. Look at all these people. Look at their faces. Do you see how unhappy they are? Do you see how much they’re suffering? Their only hope is the resurrected Jesus. I don’t care whether you’re Jesus or not. The resurrected Jesus will save the world and that’s what matters. I created the truth out of what people needed and what they believed. If I have to crucify you to save the world, then I’ll crucify you, and if I have to resurrect you, then I’ll do that, too, whether you like it or not.”

Fantasy sequence or not, this whole speech, which Stanton delivers with wide-eyed, absurdist conviction, offers a pretty dim view of religion, one that seems to say it is indeed no more than an opiate for the deluded masses who need some sort of false hope to get through their otherwise miserable lives. What’s more, this message is delivered using co-opted characters, icons from the very religion it seems to be criticizing.

If it’s just part of the temptation Jesus’ subconscious is indulging in, then perhaps the speech can be viewed on one level as Jesus realizing internally that his life would become a lie unless he actually followed through with his divine mission and died on the cross. The average viewer, however, isn’t going to have an appreciation for that kind of nuance. Is it any wonder some people were upset?

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