The Independent Archive: Historically unlikely and morally unattractive
Thursday 27 August 1998
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
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