Greetings everyone, Happy Spring! Winter’s over, we made it! So it’s Easter season, and along with cramming my face with lots of Reese’s eggs, I’ve been spending this time of year thinking about my favorite religious movies, yeah I know I’m lame. But there’s a reason: in my opinion, the absolute best* movie about Jesus is also the one that gets almost universally panned by the very people who would love it. Yes, I’m talking about Martin Scorsese’s 1988 gem The Last Temptation of Christ. A film that’s not so much under the radar as much as it practically broke the radar with its controversy, a controversy it did not deserve, yet is still not surprising in hindsight. If you consider yourself a thoughtful and open-minded Christian, and you took the Catholic Church at it’s word (Which why would you?), then you really should give this movie a chance, and let me share why.
I can see why some people would bounce violently off The Last Temptation of Christ, in many ways it is a really challenging film, and it spends its first 30 minutes trying its best to be as weird as it can. Yes there is violence and nudity, it truly earns its R rating, but as far as I’m concerned it’s one of the only films to try to represent the truth of the biblical world, in all of it’s warped brutality (Other than the Mel Gibson torture porn of course). Despite this, it’s the most thoughtful and honest look at Jesus I’ve experienced in a work of fiction. The film essentially begins with Satan’s first temptation of Christ in the desert, which is the best visual representation of this story I’ve ever seen, and follows his exploits all the way to Satan’s last temptation.
So what was Satan’s last temptation of Christ? Well it’s what caused the whole shit storm, and when you learn what it really is it will make you scratch your head. I’m about to give away the movie here, if you would prefer it to stay unspoiled then just go watch it now, you’ve been warned. Okay, so Jesus has been tortured and is nailed up on the cross, he’s dying a slow and painful death when Satan appears for one last attempt to seduce him away from his destiny. Satan shares with him a vision of a life he could have, a life where he marries Mary Magdaline, has children, lives to be an old man, a grandfather … a life, a normal life. This was Satan’s final temptation: that of a normal life, not that of a painful self sacrifice … come on Jesus, if you truly are the son of God, then you just need to snap your fingers to have it. Here you are dying one of the worst deaths imaginable for a world full of rotten people who don’t deserve it, when you could have a normal life.
Yes, that is what caused a shit storm, and it makes me think that the people boycotting the movie never even saw it, or never even really researched it. If you are a Christian, and you actually believe that Jesus was the Messiah who truly died for the world’s sins, then surely you believe that he chose to die on that cross (As yes he could snap his fingers to end up in a fluffy bed in China if he wanted), and I don’t think it’s too far fetched to believe that Satan tried this very thing, as along with being the Messiah he was also a human, along with all of the selfish temptations that come with it. Which makes his self sacrifice all the more engaging as a belief – if that’s your thing – and as a story – if it’s not.
The movie’s not perfect, as I think there’s definitely enough evidence these days to be confident that Magdaline was not actually a prostitute, and potentially enough evidence to believe she was actually an important disciple, but the 80s takes the old misinterpretation and runs with it. Still though, this film raises so many important philosophical questions and, if anything, emboldens Jesus’s sacrifice through its fiction. Like I said, if you’re a thoughtful open-minded religious type then I suggest ignoring all the controversy and watching this movie as part of your Easter celebrations (While if you’re a close-minded religious type then I imagine you stopped reading at my first use of the word “shit”). Plus it has Willem Defoe starring as Jesus and – holy shit! – David Bowie as Pontius Pilate, and what else would you want in a movie?
*I also quite like Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth, but that’s a mini-series.