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