The Last Temptation of Christ
Spirit and flesh

by Lisa DiCaprio

from Jump Cut, no. 35, April 1990, pp. 108-109
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1990, 2006

Despite its religious detractors, THE LAST TEMPTATION celebrates Christ's life. It affirms his teachings and sacrifice. In rather traditional terms, director Martin Scorcese depicts Christ's departure from basic tenets of Old Testament Judaism: Jesus' transformation of the angry and even wrathful God of the Israelites into a compassionate and merciful one embracing the entire human race, his condemnation of animal sacrifice and the money changers in the temple, and his opposition to open revolt as the only solution to the Roman domination of Israel. Instead, Jesus argues with Judas (Harvey Keitel) that love must replace hatred: "The circle of sin must be broken or else it will only be repeated." The soul, argues Jesus, is the foundation of the body — not the reverse, as Judas maintains.

For Scorsese, a Catholic, this film derives from his preoccupation with exploring the issues of sin and redemption in modem life, first exemplified in MEAN STREETS. So why all the furor? THE LAST TEMPTATION has received official condemnation from the Catholic Church, full-page ads in the New York Times by fundamentalist groups detailing "blasphemous" scenes in the film, and widespread protests, some aimed at stopping its production by Universal Pictures. In many ways, this protest replays (in a magnified way) the reaction which met the Greek publication of the Kazantzakis novel on which the screenplay is based. At that time, the Greek Orthodox Church attempted to excommunicate Kazantzakis, and in April of 1954, the Pope placed The Last Temptation on the Index of censored works.

What is new in THE LAST TEMPTATION cinematic version of the Christ story — and that which fundamentalists find most objectionable — is the process by which Christ finally accepts his role as redeemer of the human race. At the film's outset, we see a passage from the Prologue to the novel in which Kazantzakis states that all his life Christ has been consumed by the "incessant, merciless battle between the spirit and the flesh." This battle is at the center of THE LAST TEMPTATION and it is portrayed in fully human terms, including a dream sequence in which Christ (about to die on the cross) imagines himself being as the husband of Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey) and the father of several children, rather than being crucified on the cross.

This probing into Christ's personal life has received special attack. A protest leaflet handed out in front of New York's Ziegfeld Theater condemns the film as an "indecent, audacious, insolent, arrogant and improper inquiry into the private, sacred life of Jesus." The private life of Jesus, however, is precisely what THE LAST TEMPTATION aims to explore, rather than repeat the sanitized version of Christ presented in such Biblical epics as last year's television special, JESUS OF NAZARETH.

In his introduction to one of Kazantzakis' earlier works, THE SAVIORS OF GOD (1927), Kimon Friar writes that Kazantzakis "had brooded long on the ultimate spiritual significance and martyrdom of Christ stripped of dogmatic and ceremonious ritual..." It is just such a Christ which we encounter in TFIE LAST TEMPTATION — one who is indecisive, fearful of dying, followed by shadows, and without a clear understanding of the mission assigned to him by God. "I am a liar, I am a hypocrite. I am afraid of everything. Lucifer is inside of men," states Jesus at a particularly anguished moment. He is even shown experiencing sexual fantasies about Mary Magdalene — considered a sin in the eyes of the Catholic Church.

By contrast, the film depicts Judas as sure of himself — a Zealot who criticizes Christ for making the crosses on which the Romans will crucify Jews accused of sedition. And Christ regards as Judas as the strongest of all his disciples the one on whom Christ must rely to betray him: "We're bringing God and man together. Without that there will be no redemption. You have to kill me."

Despite its reversing the traditional relationship between Christ and Judas, the film does not portray Christ simply as a weakling. Instead, Willem Dafoe (much acclaimed for his Christ-like performance as Sargeant in PLATOON) brings to Scorcese's Christ just the proper combination of divine inspiration and human weakness which the film demands. However, the portrayal of such weakness strikes at the very heart of the most enduring resolution of the paradox of Christ as both human and divine: the Augustinian view that Christ represented humanity in its perfected, rather than actual form.

Did Christ suffer as man or as God? Did he have "two natures" or one? How was the union of man and God in Christ to be interpreted? These questions the Church confronted in the first few centuries of its existence, as it consolidated itself ideologically and organizationally. In his recent study, Jesus Through the Centuries, historian and theologian Jaroslav Pelikan shows how the solution offered by St. Augustine was an idealization of Christ as man. Grap­pling with issues related to the fall of humanity, St. Augus­tine not only came up with the doctrine of original sin, but he also determined that "Jesus was, then, not only the image of divinity, but the image of humanity as it had originally been intended to be and as through him it could now be­come; he was in this sense the 'ideal man.'" Christ, according to Augustine, was human insofar as he was the Word made flesh, but his humanity reflected the future perfection of "man." In THE LAST TEMPTATION, the tables are turned on this concept of Christ one traditionally associated with Christianity. Instead, the film portrays Christ in two dimensions: as humanity is in its "fallen condition" and as humans can become through their belief in God. And the struggle between the spirit and the flesh — otherwise reserved for mere mortals — thereby become transferred to the figure of Christ himself.

Myths, as Joseph Campbell emphasized, need constant updating or they can lose their meaning. As the film shows, this mythologizing began with the apostles themselves. In the film, for example, Paul confronts a living Christ who has renounced his mission, that Christ calls Paul's description of his crucifixion a lie: "I live like a man now. For the first time I enjoy it." Paul replies that the only hope for Christ's believers lies in the resurrected Jesus: "You started all this. Now you can't stop it. You don't know how much people need God. My Jesus is much more important and powerful than you."

In THE LAST TEMPTATION, the myth of Christ takes on a new and contemporary shape. The film depicts Christ almost as an anti-hero, whose final sacrifice is all the more meaningful because it comes as the product of intense personal struggle. As Christ finally acknowledges that the "guardian angel" who promised him life was really Satan in disguise, Christ asks for and receives a second chance. "It is accomplished," are Christ's final words when that moment arrives. Despite all previous vacillation, he dies as Christos Rex — Christ triumphant. In that moment, the narrative conclusion depends on a decidedly Christian ideal of sacrifice and spiritual transcendence which Scorcese's rightwing critics are unable (or unwilling) to appreciate.

Unfortunately, some of the film's power is diminished by its technical and conceptual weaknesses. At times the dialogue seems stilted and even undermines its own serious­ness by playing on historical hindsight, as when the other apostles refer to Peter as "solid as a rock." On a visual level, the film degenerates into Hollywood extravaganza as it aims to capture certain Biblical highlights. Dafoe's distinctly Aryan features also detract from the film's faithfulness to time and place, although in this instance Scorcese is only following a long-standing artistic precedent of representing Christ through the blinders of Western white culture.

Overall, however, THE LAST TEMPTATION may very well represent the crowing of Scorcese's career. The film for the most part succeeds in challenging certain tenets of Christianity in order to capture what Scorcese considers to be Christianity's essence. Even non-believers and/or those raised outside of the Christian tradition stand to gain much from viewing the film. Although we may not share Kazantzakis' particular obsession with the mind/body split, we can all appreciate the desire to transform our ordinary existence — with all its material requirements — into something more meaningful than its own maintenance or reproduction. This, then, may be the real (Catholic as Universal) lesson of Christ's Passion which THE LAST TEMPTATION aims to convey: the desire and ability of each of us (as mortals) to transform that which decays and dies into something permanent, the mundane into the spiritual — the ordinary into the extraordinary.[1]


1. Coincidentally with the release of THE LAST TEMPTATION, new historical evidence indicates that Kazantzakis' rendition of a Christ who maintains an ascetic existence in order to fulfill his Christian mission (rather than out of any view that sexuality is sinful) may very well be close to historical reality. In Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, Elaine Pagels concludes that the concept of original sin (and all that it entails) overturned views held by early Christians on the relation between sexuality and moral freedom. Pagels contends that prior to Augustine, "Christians regarded freedom as the primary message of Genesis 1-3 [the story of Adam and Eve] — freedom in its many forms, including free will, freedom from demonic powers, freedom from social and sexual obligations, freedom from tyrannical government and from fate; and self-mastery as the source of such freedom." Later, with Augustine, self-mastery as a basis for moral freedom was destroyed as "Adam's sin...corrupted our experience qf sexuality (which Augustine tended to identify with original sin), and made us incapable of genuine political freedom." If Pagels is correct, THE LAST TEMPTATION may represent a rather brilliant example of art imitating life.