Scorsese’s Divisive Temptation

When I was younger, I had grown weary of watching The Last Temptation of Christ. My staunchly Christian parents warned me of the blasphemy and heterodoxy that I would witness and shielded it from me until I was of the age to understand that. In a very similar way, the censors at the time of this film’s release attempted to do the same. MGM pulled it from its production schedule after the United Artists theater chain refused to play it.[1] After its release, Blockbuster Video declined to carry it as a rental.[2]

A quick overview of the film, which is openly fictional based upon an openly fictional novel of the same name, makes one wonder where exactly the confusion arose. In Kazantzakis’ 1955 novel, he depicts the life of Jesus and his struggle managing inclinations of fear, doubt, and lust. This was always an overtly fictional telling. Still, there are justifiable gripes with many of Kazantzakis’ unnecessary plot points, including the infamous repudiation of Mary for the Father (which Scorsese, unfortunately, kept in his film). Such instances are minuscule in the grand scheme of the novel and film, yet understandably irreconcilable as blasphemous to many.

However, the main criticism arose from Scorsese’s utterly human depiction of Christ. Many Christians, subscribing to a high Christology, found the irregular uncertainty and weakness of Jesus in the film offensive to their senses. This culminated in a Protestant boycott in 1988 led by Tim Penland, who organized a considerable number of pastors in the Bay Area to preach against the film. Surprisingly, the effort from these ministers was largely successful. On July 13, 1988, The New York Times reported that,

“Various ministers in the audience said they were already handing their congregations leaflets with the Universal switchboard number and a list of the companies owned by MCA… Donald Wildmon, a fundamentalist preacher… had gotten in touch with 170,000 pastors, was mailing out 2.5 million action packets, and had agreements from all the theaters in San Antonio that they would not play the movie.”[3]

Many reviewers, attempting to salvage the film’s reputation, drew upon an esoteric understanding. Roger Ebert famously declared in his reconsideration that, “Christ is the film, and Judas is the director”.[4] This mindset has seemingly framed an entire generation of reviewers. Tyler Hummel of “Geeks Under Grace”, an overtly Christian site, parrots a similar conclusion to that of Ebert,

“The Last Temptation of Christ isn’t a Christian film. It’s a movie by a struggling man desiring to express his anxieties and frustrations with faith in a way that others could understand.”

While Ebert and Hummel’s analysis draw genuine analogies, they fail to do Scorsese complete justice in solely viewing it as a symbolic exercise. Ironically, it is the fundamentalist criticism from Tim Penland that contains an even larger element of truth. In The Last Temptation, Scorsese’s true personality flowers through him attacking the “distant Godman” heresy – which minimizes the full humanity of Jesus – when he depicts him operating in his human nature.

This is not a new metanarrative, in fact his Christology (not to be confused with the wider story) in The Last Temptation is quite orthodox. For a lapsed Catholic, it is impressive how well Scorsese can portray the intra-struggle of the person Jesus between these two natures. However, this philosophical nuance falls on deaf ears to the Protestant ministers who boycotted Scorsese’s movie, opting for ignorance of their own self-identified creed instead.

The same can be said of when Satan, in the desert, attempts to solicit Jesus to call himself God. William Dafoe-as-Jesus’ response is not denial, but rather shock that he knows it is true – standing aback by the gravity of the statement. This is followed by an utter rejection later when Satan tries to get him to overthrow the Father, implying Scorsese’s loyalty to co-equality. Instances like this are not uncommon in the film. Jesus refers to his King as “not on earth” to Pontius Pilate.

As I am not an expert of direction, for a more cinematic view I recommend Joe George’s scene-by-scene analysis where he unpacks this conundrum of Scorsese’s belief or blasphemy. In his analysis, George concludes that many scenes depend upon (without sounding too postmodern) your own interpretation. The best example of this being how the viewer considers Paul – as George mentions,

“We can either reads this Paul as megalomaniac who has co-opted Jesus’ message to his own ends, or we can read it as somebody who sees the work of God in Jesus’ message, even if Jesus himself does not understand it”

I believe this excerpt from George is an apt summation of what Scorsese attempted in the movie at large.

Although borrowing from a fictional story, Scorsese’s ability to fit in his Catholic understanding of Jesus’ nature – as both fully God AND fully Man, angered the common view of modern Christianity. As a Restorationist, I of course do not think Scorsese went quite far enough, yet his labor to produce a recognizable, present Jesus is admirable. With ambiguous scenes interlaced, we are left wondering about The Last Temptation’s true intentions. Like Scorsese, the orthodoxy of his film is paved with both strong truth and tremendous error. In a very real sense then, The Last Temptation is the perfect lapsed Catholic movie for the definitive lapsed Catholic, Martin himself.

[1] Ebert, R. (2008). “The Last Temptation of Christ: A Reconsideration,” in Scorsese (p. 100). essay, University of Chicago Press.

[2] Martin Scorsese et al. (1997). The Last Temptation of Christ (Laserdisc/DVD/Blu-ray Disc). New York: The Criterion Collection.

[3] Harmetz, A. (1988, July 13). Ministers Vow Boycott Over Scorsese Film on Jesus. The New York Times.

[4] Ebert, “Temptation,” 104.