I. Spreading the Word
I say this with love: My father is a master of rhetoric. He is a master of rhetoric without, by his own admission, ever having mastered anything to do with rhetoric. I think he’s too hard on himself. His style of argumentation is blunt, yet nimble, as straightforward as a battering ram, yet maddeningly hard to pin down (as another subversive, Ernst Lubitsch, was summed up by the Production Code, “We know what he’s saying, but we can’t figure out how he’s saying it”). He’ll keep hammering the same point over and over again, until you think you’ve got him, whereby he’ll swerve with surprising dexterity. Approaching 80, my father is typically right-of-center on most political and social issues, except when it comes to religion. Stephanie Zacharek’s description of Pauline Kael suits him on one point only: He has no truck with God. Even the renowned theologians of history would have had their hands full with his Columbo-like oratory (“Oh, yeah, just one more question…”). Augustine would have retaken to drink. Pascal would have lost his wager. Erasmus would have turned agnostic.
Language, more than I realized at first, plays a crucial role in The Last Temptation of Christ, which premiered 25 years ago on August 12, 1988 (incidentally, right around the same time my father helped me load up a U-Haul for my freshman year at college). Actually, it may be more accurate to say words play the same role in Last Temptation as they do in Raging Bull, Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, right down to the controversial contemporary elocution, which, to me, even on first viewing, emphasized the point that the characters, as far as words are concerned, are forever fumbling for them. Unlike the Christ of the Bible and prior Christs of cinema, the Jesus in Last Temptation begins his mission tongue-tied. His Sermon on the Mount is painfully awkward: “I’m sorry,” is his unpromising start. Still he trudges forth, convinced that God will do the talking for him. He tells a story (“The Parable of the Farmer”) that concludes with the moral that love is the answer to society’s ills. Many in his initial audience remain skeptical, even hostile, yet gradually he gains a few followers. They find him persuasive. I found him moving.
Seeing Last Temptation at the age of 18 appealed to both the still-evolving movie buff and would-be rebel in me: What occurred onscreen was heady stuff, and what was fomenting offscreen made crossing a mild-mannered picket line feel like taking a bold stand (for more harrowing examples of the controversy surrounding the film’s release, see David Ehrenstein’s excellent Criterion essay. Back in the 1980s, reading Roger Ebert’s unwavering enthusiasm for Scorsese’s work—an exception, ironically, being his previous film, The Color of Money, whose success helped get Last Temptation green-lit after prior false starts—convinced me at that I knew more about his movies than I did. Certain portions of the general public, however, knew nothing. As often happens when thoughtful reflection squares off with dead-certain hostility, the collective rhetoric by opponents of Last Temptation was so extreme that it obscured what the movie itself was trying to say.
II. The Valley of the Sun
My father, an agnostic (I suppose, although he’s never used the word), and my mother, a privately devout refugee from an evangelical church, raised me in the urban desert of Arizona. “God is not alone out there,” Jesus is warned in Last Temptation, before venturing forth to confront his demons in the badlands. And the same was true about Phoenix: If Satan wasn’t around, there was certainly no shortage of his incompetent minions. One summer day our next-door neighbor, a strutting mailman named Paul, sauntered over to challenge us on an irrigation dispute. My father sidestepped a punch and gently squeezed his bigger, heavier assailant into a headlock below his knees (the mailman’s wife’s indelible reply was, “Paul doesn’t want to hurt you….”).
My upbringing was largely secular, with occasional forays into Sunday school. Once we attended a church-sponsored musical where eternally-damned sinners snapped their fingers and sang, “It’s hot in the furnace, man…” a catchy ditty that had the effect of making Hell look like a groovy place. Yet it wasn’t until the sixth grade when my parents—for educational reasons more than spiritual ones—transferred me from a local public school to Ss. Simon and Jude, an academically respectable Catholic elementary, that I began to encounter religious belief on a more regular and, frankly, more interesting and thought-provoking basis. Having that experience prepped me for viewing films like Last Temptation—not with an open mind so much as an active one.
I won’t guess what the nuns who taught me at Ss. S&J went on to think of Scorsese’s movie, if they ever saw it, or Kazantzakis’s original novel, if they ever read it. But they practiced the kind of belief that I admired about both film and book, engaging intellectually in spiritual endeavors and spiritually in intellectual endeavors (Kael was stirred by Scorsese’s “passionate thrashing around” as well). I saw Last Temptation years before I read it, and having seen the movie a few more times since, I now recall the dialogue being more in synch with the images: Jesus stalked by an invisible entity who pins him to the ground (“Who are you? What do you want?”), his encounter with André Gregory’s fire-and-brimstone John the Baptist (”He sounds like the Messiah,” Judas notes), Pilate’s reasoning behind Jesus’s death sentence (“It’s one thing to want to change the way people live, but you want to change how they think, what they feel”), Lazarus’s pithy description of the afterlife (“I was a little surprised. There wasn’t that much difference”), and the print-the-legend justifications of the Apostle Paul—not to be confused with the Mailman—for preferring the Divine Christ to the mortal version (“You know, I’m glad I met you, because now I can forget all about you”).
Although most Christians are baptized very young, Jesus, according to Scripture and the Apocrypha on which Kazantzakis based his book, wasn’t officially blessed until he was 30. I, on the other hand, was between infancy and adulthood—12 years old in the spring of 1982—when the Sisters at my new school gently pushed to save my soul. My parents, wanting me to fit in, agreed. I wish I could say I thought long and hard about such a weighty matter. In Last Temptation, Jesus’s request to be baptized feels meaningful. I suspect my reaction was more along the lines of, “Sure, what the hell…why not?”
In Scorsese’s depiction, Jesus arrives at the Jordan River among other seekers of The Baptist, some of them naked and caterwauling. The soundtrack goes memorably silent during this sequence (My Baptism with Andre), leaving audible only the dialogue between Jesus and John (after Gregory pours a handful of water down Willem Dafoe’s face, the surrounding din returns). My own christening, somewhat more subdued, took place at Ss. Simon and Jude Church. An older student in my mother’s art class, whom I knew as “Mr. Boylan,” agreed to be my godfather. Mr. Boylan, whose first name was John, was a retiree-turned-aspiring-actor who had once given me a shard of breakaway-glass from an episode of The Fall Guy, on which he had been an extra (John Boylan would go on to play Mayor Milford on Twin Peaks, and the elevator man who takes Meg Ryan to the top of the Empire State Building in Sleepless in Seattle). It was a lovely ceremony. My peers wrote heartfelt well-wishes that were collected in a scrapbook. I tried to be heartfelt as well in my commitment. I wasn’t cynical about religious belief. Deep down, I think I just wasn’t feeling the devotion. At best, I gave faith a whirl.
Unsurprisingly, I wasn’t a very good Catholic. Over the years I have acquired plenty of more dedicated friends, including a gregarious ex-seminarian who, whenever a pair of nice clean-cut young men in white shirts and dark ties knocked on his door to talk about God and Jesus and salvation, would invite them inside for a friendly debate over spiritual matters. I hadn’t the patience for even the fundamentals of faith. My church attendance was erratic; my confessions unforthcoming. Nevertheless, I stayed in Catholic schools all the way through college. And it was at Marquette University, in the early fall semester of 1988, where I was able to see Last Temptation.