Friday, July 30, 2010

#70: The Last Temptation of Christ

(Martin Scorsese, 1988)

On my way to San Francisco this past weekend, I watched a few DVDs I own, and the first was The Last Temptation of Christ. I've owned it for a number of years, but I've only actually watched my copy once (I had also seen it twice before), not just because I am rarely in the mood for such serious fare, but because it is nearly three hours of deeply serious fare. Still, it's certainly my favorite Scorsese film (though I still have a soft spot for Goodfellas), and quite possibly one of my ten favorite movies ever made.

Not belonging to any organized religion, I feel I can safely bypass any debate about whether or not the film is offensive to Catholics or Christians in general. Personally, I feel that the film is such an intelligent and thoughtful exploration of the nature of faith that it makes no sense at all to me that someone would be offended by the film, but then again I don't believe Jesus Christ is my personal lord and savior, so I'm not really in any place to tell someone who does what to think. I certainly think there is a huge difference between a film like this and a film like Birth of a Nation, to which one (otherwise thoughtful) Christian reviewer compared it, because Scorsese's film seeks to explore intellectual concepts behind the struggles of men that are entirely truthful (avoiding, for a moment, that they are being explored through the personage of Jesus Christ), while Birth of a Nation paints a portrait of humans (avoiding, with the same benefit of the doubt, that it's ostensibly an historical epic) that is entirely opposed to truth and honest human nature. The idea of a Jesus and Judas as presented in The Last Temptation of Christ  may be antithetical to the teachings of Jesus and/or the Church, but they are far from unrecognizable to thoughtful, open-minded people.

More importantly, Birth of a Nation inspired the resurgence of the Klu Klux Klan, causing a renewal of domestic terrorism throughout the South for the next forty or fifty years. The Last Temptation of Christ, on the other hand, paints an extremely favorable picture of the Christian faith to outsiders, a faith that is powerful enough to overcome the most sinister of temptations and doubts. Far too often - especially among fundamentalists - faith is obfuscated behind certainty, making the choices to lead one's life in a moral and pious way seem to be borne out of fear and delusion more than conscious decision to walk the path of the enlightened. Faith as it is portrayed in the film is constantly challenged, desperately denied, but ultimately responsible for salvation. To the outside viewer (and to this I can speak with much more certainty and self-reflection), the Jesus of this film is the empathetic, passionate Jesus, the one who truly loves his father but understands the sacrifice he is about to make. It makes his ultimate choice to do so seem that much more significant, and makes the viewer relate that much more to the pull Jesus's life has over people.

But you see what this film does to people? I just said I wanted to sidestep questions of theology and then proceeded to entirely avoid a discussion of the actual film. This is because there are few films that have been made that so merge both narrative and technique with theme. Unlike something like The Passion of the Christ, which so ignores competent filmmaking and entertaining story at the expense of the theme that it becomes a true slog of a film, Last Temptation is entirely concerned with telling a story in order to illuminate the concepts it wants to explore. This is partially because the later Mel Gibson film takes everything about Jesus that surrounds his crucifixion as a given, while the earlier film must map out this radical portrayal of the son of God.

The best scenes in The Last Temptation of Christ are scenes that merge theme and character. Although many of the most memorable scenes are action-oriented (especially Jesus back on the cross after the final temptation), the most challenging - and exciting - scenes are quiet moments of discussion. The moment in which Jesus tells Judas that God gave Judas the harder job, the moment when Jesus doubts his place as the messiah, and the scene of Jesus confronting Paul in his dream(?) could all spawn full pieces exploring the nature of faith.

But The Last Temptation of Christ is most appealing because of the way in which it unflinchingly - and continuously - challenges the viewers perception not just of Jesus, but of their own relationship with God. With the exception of people who simply cannot get past the subject matter which they find objectionable, I can't imagine anyone - atheist or devout Catholic - watching this movie and not coming away with a deeper understanding of their own viewpoint on religion. In this way, the film isn't really about Jesus at all, but instead about the search for truth for which all religions are ostensibly created, and, not coincidentally, all art is ostensibly made.

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