This is an engrossing, jarring, and deeply thought-provoking classic by Martin Scorcese.
I had heard a lot about this film as I was growing up and I’ve only watched it now. I think this was a wise choice, having gone through some Christian theological studies and looked the other way when the Da Vinci Code hysteria was swallowing up the masses. I thought this film would be the precursor to Dan Brown’s obsession with making Christ seem as human as humanly possible, but the opening credits of Last Temptation took care of that. As I realized that this is supposed to be an alternative exploration of the Christ story, I was at ease for some reason, although I’m never one to stop watching a film because it’s critical or uses artistic license of something to do with Christianity. I’m not that serious of a believer or practitioner right now.
The film has the landmarks of Scorcese’s style: the sudden splatter of blood, the tight beautiful photography, really natural and potent acting. The quick cuts, the slow pans and tilts.
All those technical notes aside, the most powerful aspect of this film is that it’s free. It explores the story of Christ freely. It doesn’t bow down or feel that it has to say something because the Synoptic Gospels said so. Kazantzakis’ disclaimer at the beginning of the film sets that up anyway. So, Scorcese does go wild with the material.
As someone who grew up reading the Bible over and over again, it was really exhilarating to see this story told in a starkly realist way. It didn’t have to go through the Christian Bleak test, where everything has to be dumbed and toned down because you’re talking about the Bible. Mary Magdalene’s prostitution is stark, smelly, sweaty; the silence and indifference is jarring. The detail in the weddings shown in the film – the music, costumes, food – is really engrossing. It really does show you that beyond the rendition of Wycliffe’s Scriptures, there were actually people in the times of Christ.
The dialogue is a bit flat and over poetic. I kept on thinking of Paolo Coelho but I realize that this may be taken from the novel. Aside: I do need to read the novel. But putting the stylized language aside, seeing Christ be so human and it done by Defoe in an engaging way that avoids melodrama is also very illuminating.
There are some really intelligent and dry twists in the film, like the meeting between Paul and Jesus. Very tongue in cheek and I’m sure legions of biblical scholars loved that bit. And the part, especially, where Christ gets old and Judas berates him for not having fulfilled the mission. Even the spin of Judas’ betrayal is interesting.
Coming to the movie with all the crap I’ve heard and read by Christians, I thought the last temptation was to be purely the sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene. It was really refreshing to see that it really was as Kazantzakis said it would be: the conflict between spirit and body. And to the dismay of many Christians, the last part of the film deals with Jesus’ sexual activity in the context of marriage and family, not lust or whoring. It’s interesting and mind-opening.
The music is visceral and I playfully made myself ignore that they were singing Arabic mawaweel (a poetic form set to song, usually in the Saba scale, that usually talks about lost love or sadness) in the 3rd century. 🙂 Overall, it’s well picked, performed, and adds emotional intensity to the film.
Definitely a film to own and learn from. It exemplifies taking a very sensitive subject and making something honest, according to a vision, not caring about its reception. It’s really important to Christians, no matter how blasphemous we’ve been conditioned to think it is, that Christ was after all human. This film just takes that to the logical limits of what it means to be human and what it means to make a choice willfully, mindfully, and with no excuses.