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.]

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