I was leading an adult Bible Study class and it got to the Sermon on the Mount and rather than reading it, I thought it might be different and interesting, good to play a video of it. So, I played a small segment from the movie “The Last Temptation of Christ.” The result of this was the first and last time I asked someone to leave a Bible study class and maybe the fourth or fifth time someone complained about me to the pastor for things I did or said in a class.
One guy who I didn’t know glared at me, arms crossed, for a bit. I had seen this before, but was not ready for what he said, which was along the lines of “you are a minion of Satan. No one but one of Satan’s own would have played that movie in a church.” A class member tried to defend me and she was lumped into the class of Satan’s minions. And it went downhill from there. After a few minutes, it was plain there was no calming him down and I asked him to leave.
When the movie came out, it was boycotted in my part of the country and preachers preached against it and video stores refused to carry it because of the public outcry from religious folk claiming it denigrated Jesus Christ and was blasphemous and that they would never see it or allow their children to see it. This begged the question I have asked many times in my life: how can you judge something as blasphemous without ever reading or viewing the material?
Of course, I couldn’t see the movie here and the video wasn’t on the shelves either, but I did get a hold of the book by Nikos Kazabtzakis. It is what you might call a tough read. Interesting, but it takes forever for Jesus to leave home and get on with his mission.
I finally picked up the videotape on an out-of-town trip and felt a little guilty the first time I watched it just because watching it was supposed to be a bad thing, don’t ya’ know. But it wasn’t bad. It was very good; it felt real and alive—nothing at all like something Cecil B. DeMille would have made
Here’s the thing: Kazantzakis was not writing a Gospel, but a work of fiction imagining the completely human side of Jesus. The movie obviously cannot capture all that is in the book, but it does a pretty good job.
The temptation scene in the desert is very well done and Willem Dafoe does one of the best Christ’s I have ever seen. The problem with the film in general for most in this part of the country is Jesus had doubts and that just cannot be—they forget that in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus more or less begs God to get out of the crucifixion.
But the real problem is the Last Temptation imagined by Kazantzakis while Jesus was on the cross, and boy was it a doozy. In the temptation, Jesus is shown coming down form the cross—he has done enough and does not have to die, you see—marry Mary Magdalene, have kids and grow old. Of course, it imagines Jesus and Mary loving each other in every sense of the word. It doesn’t work. She dies, he lives with Mary and Martha and kives to see the destruction of the Temple. And at the end of the temptation noe of could refuse, Jesus casts aside the temptation and goes through with the sacrifice.
To me, this is in no way denigrating. Unless Jesus was fully man and thus subject to temptation, then his avoidance of sin meant nothing. Unless Jesus was human and knew what the suffering would be and went through with it anyway, then the sacrifice meant nothing because without being human and feeling love and pain, there was nothing to give up.
Barbara Hershey is a sensuous and caring Magdalene; Harvey Keitel is an interesting but effective casting of Judas, and the rest of the disciples are fairly weak and ineffective, much as I would have thought. Saul is probably the most stereotyped character in the film.
The soundtrack is out of this world good and stands on its own without the film.