Jesus’ Portrayal in Film and The Last Temptation of Christ

(Foreword: The following is my opinion of both the movie and it’s message. The interpretation of the film is mine alone, and where possible, I tried not to make any opinions regarding the validity of the Bible or it’s message within. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, but at the same time my intent is not to offend those who hold to certain beliefs)

Last temptation of Christ posterThe Last Temptation of Christ begins with an interesting scenario- Jesus, a lowly carpenter, is crafting a cross. The cross isn’t his own, but instead to be used in the crucifixion of a traitor of the Roman state. He’s soon visited by Judas (yes that Judas), who calls out Jesus for betraying his own people by collaborating in the death of Jews. Most anyone who is familiar with the Biblical Jesus would be able to identify his profession before he took up his ministry- carpentry. Yet never have I considered the possibility that part of Jesus’ job was building the crosses used in Roman crucifixions. Realistically this probably never happened, however, this scenario immediately sets up what one can expect when watching this film- this isn’t your typical sunday school version of Jesus’ life, ministry, and death.

Jesus is by far the most influential figure in Western civilization- perhaps all the world- who’s story is familiar to billions of people worldwide. It’s not my place to determine the validity of Jesus’ life, accomplishments and miracles, or death and resurrection, however I will talk about how Jesus has been represented throughout history, and film in particular. Nearly every film leading up to The Last Temptation of Christ portrayed Jesus as a young, handsome man with long hair and beard, displaying a temperament full of humility and grace. This depiction of Jesus was established decades earlier in art- slowly evolving to the general image that we are familiar with today. This evolution is interesting to explore- originating as symbols and vague representations in early Christianity (when christians were still largely persecuted) to the sixth century where the Christ Pantocrator depiction of Jesus with a halo, beard and long hair, right hand giving a blessing, and left hand holding the gospels became commonplace. Since that period, iconography of Jesus has changed very little, with film eventually borrowing the depiction in the 20th century. Most of these films about Jesus not only borrow this iconographic look of Christ, but also focus more on his spiritual mission here on earth. Jesus in these films, while filled with humility, is confident in his mission- self assured that he is the Son of God and is carrying out his role in the salvation of mankind. It is the Gospels that are the foundation of the story, with many films utilizing their accounts literally and some adding creative freedom. Thus it is interesting that while Christian orthodoxy recognizes Jesus as both human and divine, these films tend to focus more on his divinity than humanity.

jesus iconography

The oldest surviving panel icon of Christ Pantocrator, encaustic on panel, c. 6th century.

Perhaps this is why, upon it’s release, The Last Temptation of Christ was (and still is) so controversial. While many scenes in the film were deemed blasphemous, the portrayal of Jesus marrying Mary Magdelene and having children was what really drew the ire of Christian believers. For the creators of the film, it was Jesus’ humanity that was the driving point of the story- something not so heavily portrayed in other adaptations of Jesus’ life. Thus, it is the human emotions that Jesus experiences- fear, doubt, confusion, pain, lust- that makes The Last Temptation of Christ so compelling. Whether Christ was really the Son of God, and therefore divine, is for theologians to debate, but the idea that Jesus was also human isn’t a new concept- as determined at the Council of Chalcedon in the mid 5th century. Allowing us to see a man who struggles with what God has planned for him- to doubt not only God, but himself- adds to the humanity of who Jesus was. It makes him relatable. Surely if Jesus was equally human and divine, he must have, if not outwardly, inwardly struggled with many of the things every person struggles with. The Gospels hint at Jesus’ fear and doubt; in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus prays to his Father, asking Him that if it is His will, to let “this cup pass by me.” In Matthew, Jesus asks this of God threes times (perhaps foreshadowing the numerological theme of three as when Peter thrice denies knowing Jesus or the amount of days between his death and resurrection). When dying on the cross in Mark (and in Matthew), Jesus calls out to God, asking ‘why have you forsaken me?’ While some see this as Jesus bringing attention to Psalms 22:1 as a fulfillment of that prophesy, others interpret it that when Jesus took on the world’s sins, God himself had to turn away. There’s no denying the anguish in those words, and therefore easy to see that after being betrayed, abandoned by his apostles, and crucified, Jesus just as easily could have felt forsaken by his Father as well.

It’s these human qualities that Scorsese wanted to explore, for it is our human characteristics that allow us to connect with one another. Scorsese sticks with the now-iconic look of Jesus, however he’s not as ‘beautiful’ as Robert Powell’s version (in Jesus of Nazareth) or Jeremy Sisto (whose flowing hair and well-trimmed beard looks out of place in 1st century Palestine). However, Willem Dafoe’s gaunt, haunting face seems more natural and human, further separating the human aspect of Jesus from the divine. The anguish, fear, and doubt he conveys is so convincing, it’s hard not to prefer this version of Jesus’ life over the Gospels. That’s not to say that any one version is better than the other, but this film does do an excellent job of displaying just how difficult Jesus’ decision must have been to sacrifice himself. This is best implemented in the final third of the film. After being nailed to the cross and displayed for everyone to see, Jesus is visited by his guardian angel. He is told that God is not going to sacrifice him, but like Abraham, was testing him and is now pleased with him. She then leads him to Mary Magdelene, whom he marries. Thus Jesus is able to live a normal life, complete with children, happiness, and old age. It isn’t until he is on his deathbed that it is revealed (by Judas who betrayed him) that his guardian angel was actually Satan, tempting him one last time while on the cross. Recognizing that he has forsaken not only God, but the completion of his mission, he pleads with God to allow him to fulfill his promise. Thus, we return back to the day of his crucifixion, where Jesus affirms that all has been accomplished before dying. It is this sequence of events that proved most controversial for the film, but I believe provided the most powerful scene in the film. As before in the desert when Jesus was tempted, he is again tempted by Satan one last time with the most desirable temptation- to be just a man whom God is pleased with, left to live out his life happily. And yet, by Jesus choosing to give this up, for the benefit of all, is a powerful message. Unfortunately, with most other films focusing on the divinity of Jesus, his humanity is lost, and with it the power of the story of Jesus’ sacrifice.

the last temptation of christ

This isn’t Martin Scorsese’s best directorial effort. Because of a smaller budget and hurried schedule, Scorsese had to adapt a more guerrilla style of shooting- with scenes being improvised as well as adapting a more minimalistic approach. This approach is definitely discernible, with much of the film falling short of the expectations one has come to expect from the director. This is also shown in the performances; whereas Willem Dafoe, Barbara Hershey, and Harvey Keitel are excellent, most of the supporting cast performances are lacking, with many of the actors feeling out of place. This doesn’t detract from the film per se, but does periodically take the viewer out of the overall experience. As with many of Scorsese’s films, the score is one of the highlights of the film. Composed by Peter Gabriel and encompassing a wide range of different musical influences (African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian) the score helps establish the idea that Jesus’ ministry, as believed by Orthodox Christians, was for the world. It may not fit the musical style of the period, nor the conventual orchestral score that encompasses many films, but rather seems balanced with the rather unconventional story of Jesus’ ministry and death.

It’s a shame many will refuse to try the film out, let alone dismiss what the film has to say. Scorsese, who was raised Catholic, treats the story of Jesus with respect- never trying to be insensitive to those who hold the story of Christ as truth, and therefore holy. And while many will see the film as blasphemous, it’s the humanity of Jesus many are are neglecting and that which Scorsese and company are trying to highlight. If anything, this film could lead to a deeper appreciation as to what Jesus had to do in his mission to save mankind.

3.5 star rating

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One response to “Jesus’ Portrayal in Film and The Last Temptation of Christ

  1. Pingback: The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) | timneath·

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