The Last Temptation of Christ

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


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.


• 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.]