The Last Temptation of Christ

A part of this viewing list: Criterion Collection Spine #70: Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.

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Ever since I first saw this movie, I’ve loved it. There was a controversial screening of it at Notre Dame when I was an undergrad. But instead of talking about how everything that differs from dogma is controversial at Notre Dame, I’ll simply mention that there was shirtless snow-wrestling after we left the theater. The reason I love this movie is because it subverts the most powerful symbol of our time, not for subversion’s sake, but to help people recognize their own struggles between body and spirit. I think it subverts the symbol of Jesus, but actually exemplifies his spirit.

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Jesus is not the confident, calm and perfect incarnation of God that we’re used to seeing in film. Instead of focusing on the Godly aspects of the hypostatic union; Scorsese, using Kazantzakis’s book as a primer, examines the human aspects of Christ and portrays Christ in a way that he sees godly powers through a thoroughly human subjectivity. This is the main reason, as far as I can tell, for all of the controversy. Most Christians don’t like to think that Jesus could have had faults, made mistakes, or been human. I think the trouble is one of taxonomy. Does The Incarnation mean that Christ became subject to the desires of his body, or was he only clothed in flesh?

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The Last Temptation of Christ assumes that since Jesus had a body, he was subjected to its needs and desires, but not subject to them. He is portrayed as angry, prideful, cowardly, fearful, lustful, hateful, traitorous, obsessed, lunatic, naïve; just about any of the darker human emotions you could care to name. At the start of the movie he’s a carpenter, but one that makes crucifixes for the Romans to nail his brother Jews to. Despite and because of all this, Jesus is a sympathetic character instead of a holy relic; his teachings and demands seem much more attainable when we can see that he went through the same twistings of desire and duty that all humans face.

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The power of the film is in Jesus’s triumph of spirit over the body. Though the last temptation is merely a daydream, the godly spirit of Jesus doesn’t fail. The importance of this sequence is a recognition by Jesus that we weaker human vessels find this struggle a bit harder. By living as fully human in a dream but repenting and crawling back to God, we are shown a Jesus that has walked a mile in our shoes; a God that knows that our ways are not his ways but who will show us a path nonetheless.

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• Criterion Essay by David Ehrenstein.
• Roger Ebert Review.
• Essay by Steven D. Greydanus.
• Images Journal article with stills.
• Behind the Scenes YouTube footage of the film. [The comments immediately devolve into a flamewar.]