The Independent Archive: Historically unlikely and morally unattractive

27 August 1988

Martin Scorsese's film `The Last Temptation of Christ' faces a ban. The Right Rev Richard Harries, Bishop of Oxford, went to see it

MOST OF those who object to The Last Temptation object for the wrong reason. They focus on the dream sequence at the end where Jesus is shown making love to Mary Magdalene. The point is, however, that this is a temptation which was rejected. Christ on the cross sees in His mind other courses He could have followed.

The main temptation is not in fact Mary Magdalene, who quickly dies, but becoming a family man with lots of children by Mary and Martha. This future is played out in His imagination but He chooses to go through with what He feels is His true vocation, remains on the cross, and dies proclaiming the Johannine "It is accomplished".

The real difficulties go deeper than the film, deeper than the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis on which it is based and concern the subject itself. How do we depict a Jesus of sufficient authority, goodness and holiness?

Unfortunately, the Jesus of the film is very poorly acted, without a trace of credibility. But the problem is a fundamental one and novelists have had to adopt some strange devices even to begin to tackle it. Early Christian art quickly settled for the set symbolism of the icons, which still radiate spiritual power, but they make no attempt to relate to ordinary human emotions.

The Last Temptation uses iconographic techniques but ones from the Western Counter-Reformation tradition rather than that of the early Church.

Jesus is carefully coiffeured as the bleeding Teutonic blond reproduced in innumerable devotional pictures from the 17th to the 19th century. Added to this are romantic Roman ruins and more than a touch of Bruegel. At times the film is slowed to give a stills effect like some great painting. But this is deliberately and unashamedly the kind of religiosity that would have appealed to Roman Catholics on the continent of Europe before the First World War. At one moment Jesus even pulls out His heart to show people, a distasteful and ludicrous reference to the cult of the sacred heart.

If the difficulties of portraying a good, holy and authoritative person are formidable, the difficulties of filming Jesus's special sense of divine vocation are no less. The Last Temptation begins with Jesus, as a carpenter, making crosses for Roman executions. This makes Him unpopular with the Jewish nationalists but this hostility makes Him even more determined to persevere. He intimates that He must bring such hatred upon Him, from God and man, that He can Himself be crucified and thus bear the sins of the world. So there is a great deal of whipping and blood. But the picture of Jesus obsessed with the idea that He is the Messiah come to earth to die a painful death for the sins of the world is one which is historically unlikely, psychologically implausible and morally unattractive.

Jesus came to put before people the new life of the Kingdom of God. He clearly came to feel that, if He was going to continue to do this, it would meet opposition, and that being faithful meant continuing with this vocation whatever ensued. But Jesus was neither suicidal nor a masochist.

The difficulty of portraying Christ's vocation in a way which is both psychologically convincing and morally appealing arises from the Gospels themselves. Where both film and novel fail to do them justice is in the nature of the temptation. We know virtually nothing about Jesus before the age of 30 and it is certainly likely that He shared the desire for sexual fulfilment and a family life of most other human beings. But it is clear from the Gospels that the main temptations of Jesus had to do with His power and how He was to work out His vocation.

There is some excellent photography in the film and some arresting drama involving Judas and Mary Magdalene, but the film as a whole is more interesting in the questions it raises than in what it portrays. All films about Jesus are failures, but some fail more badly than others. Those who want to see a less disastrous failure should search out Pasolini's Gospel According to St Matthew.

From the Home News pages of `The Independent', Saturday

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine