I’d also disagree that Last Temptation never attains the holy aura that you apparently detect in Gibson’s flashbacks. Sure, Last Temptation doesn’t have the deadly serious, utterly respectful tone of The Passion, but in its own way, by mingling the sacred and the profane, it often attains edgy, unsettling heights of religious hysteria that Gibson’s film, for all its physical violence and suffering, is too staid, too conservative, to reach. Real religious devotion is not controlled, it’s John the Baptist’s followers screaming and dancing by the riverside, or Jesus being confronted with visions of Satan as a pair of talking snakes or a pillar of fire, or Jesus actually reaching into his chest and holding his heart out to his followers. Now that is real holy beauty, a haunting image that’s impossible to shake: Jesus fumbling around in his own chest, then slowly holding out his still beating, bloody heart as a sign of his impending sacrifice, his face lit up by this unearthly glow, as a harrowing expression plays across his features, as though he was looking at something beyond human perception. Gibson’s film occasionally achieves the feel of a stained glass window or an ancient religious painting, presenting this predigested idea of what it means to be “holy.” Scorsese’s film, in contrast, is all about holiness and spirituality as dangerous, vital concepts, a spirituality that genuinely transcends physicality.
JB: I wouldn’t argue with any of that. By pointing out the “holy” aura of The Passion’s Last Supper flashback in particular, I was simply articulating the different emotions of the films. I wasn’t trying to judge them. Now, you felt no genuine emotional response, so I won’t try to talk you into it, but even though I agree that The Passion presents a “predigested idea of what it means to be holy,” there’s no doubt that some people—even nonbelievers like me—will recognize that aura and respond to it. In that way, The Passion is no different than a horror film preying on predigested fears of things that go bump in the night. I’ll leave it up to you as to whether that’s a compliment or an insult or neither. In contrast to The Passion, what I admire about Last Temptation is the way it explores the humanness of Jesus, but as a consequence of that approach his godliness is almost unconvincing, even when he does converse with a snake or a lion, even when he does pull his heart from his chest. This isn’t to imply that The Passion does a spectacular job of creating Jesus’ holiness from scratch, because it doesn’t. But does it need to? We all expect Jesus to have a certain holiness, just as we expect a snake or a chainsaw-wielding dude in a hockey mask to be dangerous.
On that note, part of what makes Last Temptation compelling is that it defies our expectations. In the film, Jesus’ most spectacular act—beyond taking his heart out of his body, which is an undeniably nifty party trick—is the raising of Lazarus from death after rotting in a tomb for four days. More than any other scene, this one shows a Jesus who seems equal parts man and miracle-worker. Dafoe acts out the scene with an awesome combination of assured determination and “This had better work” doubt. It’s Last Temptation’s version of the ubiquitous moment in every superhero movie when the once seemingly ordinary man, having seen flashes of his power, now fully commits to testing them—jumping off a building or some such thing. It’s a powerful scene, and that 50 percent of doubt in Dafoe’s portrayal is 50 percent more than we find in most dramatizations of Jesus, in which the character uses his powers precisely because he knows he’s wrapped in a holy aura. Interestingly, perhaps the only scene in Last Temptation in which Jesus appears to have complete confidence in his own Midas touch, when he performs the miracle of turning water into wine, is a scene in which Dafoe plays Jesus as if he’s somewhat crazed. In Scorsese’s film, this miracle has no grand act, no performance, no ritual; Jesus just insists that there is wine in jugs thought to contain water, and he’s proven right. Scorsese leaves open the possibility that this wasn’t a true miracle, but was pure coincidence—one guy making a mistake and Jesus fooling himself into thinking he’s more powerful than he really is.
My point is that in too many Jesus yarns the only thing human about Jesus is his body and his (kinda-sorta) human death. Scorsese’s film doesn’t settle for this. His film operates with the idea that if Jesus was really entirely man and entirely God at the same time, Jesus must be allowed to be fully human. Last Temptation succeeds in this respect, but I think at the expense of conveying that Jesus is fully holy. This isn’t a putdown of the film by any stretch. It’s just an observation. And maybe it simply underlines how difficult (impossible?) it is to make Jesus fully human without making him feel less-than-divine at the same time.
EH: What you’re getting at is a paradox akin to the one-God-in-three-persons paradox, the kind of thing that tends to tie those who don’t believe—and even many of those who do—into inescapably complex knots. I’d even venture a somewhat tongue-in-cheek guess that such thorny problems are the whole reason we have organized religions in the first place: if everyone could understand this stuff themselves, what would the priests do? So of course Jesus is both fully human and fully divine, and of course the three beings of the Holy Trinity are actually all the same, singular entity; what would religion be without its irresolvable paradoxes? The idea that Jesus is simultaneously the son of God, and God himself, and also a human, is one that’s hard enough to wrap one’s head around in the abstract, let alone trying to convey the idea through a film. So it’s perhaps understandable that The Passion leans towards Jesus as holy (albeit while also, ironically, emphasizing his physical torment) and Last Temptation leans towards Jesus as human, even fallible and uncertain.
In fact, nowhere does Jesus seem more human, less divine, than in the film’s lengthy climactic diversion into an alternate reality, or vision, in which Jesus, tempted by the Devil posing as a young angel (Juliette Caton), gives up his place on the cross in order to have a natural, human life. This is, understandably, the film’s most controversial segment, the part of the film that possibly elicited even more protest from Christians than the nudity or the smaller irreverent touches. It’s not hard to see why, either, even if many of the film’s most virulent opponents hadn’t even seen it before protesting: the whole idea of Jesus not only being tempted not to die on the cross but actually giving in to this temptation right up until the very last second, is obviously a shock to the system for devout Christians.
In this sequence, Jesus marries Mary Magdalene, and then, when she dies, at the urging of his little guardian angel he moves on to another woman, Lazarus’ sister, and marries her as well. He has a family, and begins to grow old, raising his children and enjoying a quiet, simple life. It is only on his deathbed, when he is confronted by his also-aged apostles, including an angry, bitter Judas, that Jesus finally realizes how important his sacrifice is, and he gives up this other life to return to the cross. It’s no surprise that this was controversial, but from a certain perspective it actually makes Jesus’ sacrifice even more potent, even more poignant and special, than Gibson’s far bloodier vision of the crucifixion. In Last Temptation, Jesus gives up the life that his human side wants so badly—the earthly love, the family, the natural death of an old man surrounded by his loved ones—and ultimately embraces the fate that God has in store for him instead. It is such a powerful depiction of doing God’s will precisely because Jesus has such a strong desire for another fate, another life: his sacrifice is more meaningful because he’s giving up something he wants so intensely that he very nearly makes the wrong choice.
When he does return to the cross at the finale, he has really earned the beatific, enraptured smile on his face as he triumphantly exclaims, “It is accomplished!” Gibson has stated that he wanted The Passion to remind people of how great Jesus’ sacrifice was, but it’s the final moments of Last Temptation that make me feel that most powerfully. All Gibson can offer as evidence of Jesus’ sacrifice is the physical torment he endured; Scorsese and Kazantzakis make Jesus’ sacrifice far more profound than mere corporeal suffering. They also make it more joyful, which is appropriate. If Jesus died to save the world, to cleanse the sins of humans, then why is Gibson’s film so dour, so completely lacking in the holy joy that washes across Dafoe’s face when he finally accepts his fate?
JB: I have no satisfying answer for your last question, but I’m glad you brought up the “alternate reality” sequence at the end of Last Temptation. Much earlier in this conversation we were talking about the scene in which the crow pecks out the eye of one of the criminals on the cross next to Jesus and I said that Gibson was simply illustrating the damnation that the Bible implies. I said Gibson was “calling a spade a spade” and that Scorsese does the same. Well, this is the sequence I was referring to with that statement. What’s so compelling about that almost Lynchian closing portion of Last Temptation isn’t just how close Jesus is to giving up on his mission but what he’s considering giving up his mission for: mostly the chance to be intimate with women. To be perfectly clear here, I really mean “intimate.“Jesus wants sex, yes, but more than just that; he wants companionship, too. And he wants this intimacy even if it means ignoring the limitations of monogamy.
Now, if you look at the world around us and think of the daily temptations most of us face, this seems absolutely normal. Who among us can’t identify with those urges? But on screen it’s absolutely shocking. There’s something taboo about associating Jesus with any kind of sexuality, and so it’s easy to understand why believers would feel offended at this playboy version. At worst, the portrayal in Last Temptation seems like intentional blasphemy. In the least it seems like uncouthness, akin to swearing around grandma. Once one gets over the shock and sees how the narrative is resolved, however, it becomes clear (at least to me) that this alternate reality sequence doesn’t insult or cheapen Jesus in the slightest. In fact, it exalts him.
Because, truly, what is his sacrifice worth if he is without earthly desires? The more Jesus wants something that he could only have as man (and rarely does one hear about spirits knocking boots in the afterlife), the more honorable his sacrifice becomes. The traditional way to dramatize Jesus’ temptation is to suggest that he’s turning down material wealth and/or some kind of leadership role in Satan’s army. But is that really more attractive than ascending to Heaven to judge the living and the dead while seated at the right hand of the Father? Kind of a lateral move, if you ask me. Scorsese’s film ignores temptations of power and tries to consider what human life could offer that heavenly life couldn’t. Sexual and romantic intimacy—those very human and sometimes sinful urges—would seem to be high up on that list, would they not? So, yes, what Jesus accomplishes in Gibson’s film is little more than the Timex test: he takes a licking and keeps on ticking. In Scorsese’s film, however, when Jesus says “It is accomplished,” he has really considered his options, allowed himself to contemplate the life he could have had. Thus, he’s really been tempted. His sacrifice is of more than just his body.
EH: That’s exactly what I was getting at. What I really appreciate about Scorsese’s film is the seriousness with which it approaches theological issues. It’s not merely a visualization of Jesus’ life and death, it’s an exploration of the roots of spirituality, the meaning of religious ideas, and the disagreements and differing interpretations that create schisms between religions. One subtext in the film is the idea that religious messages are almost always misunderstood, twisted for other purposes by people who either genuinely miss the real meaning or who see spiritual matters as a means to worldly advancement. Right from the start, from the very first time he speaks, Jesus’ messages provoke reactions that run directly counter to his intentions. After delivering a sermon about love and humility, Jesus is dismayed that people are running off angrily, vowing to kill the rich and start riots; “not death… I said love!” Jesus shouts after them, but it’s no use. People will hear what they want to hear, and will take any given message, any text, as a confirmation of whatever it is they already believe. How else can those who claim to love the Bible and its message conclude that Jesus—who spends much of the New Testament preaching against presumptuous human judgment and advocating forgiveness and love—“hates fags?” Last Temptation shows a Jesus who’s very much fed up with his followers’ selective hearing, with their willingness to pick and choose the bits of his teaching that will enforce their own agendas, ignoring those ideas that might be harder to embrace.
Even Judas is guilty of this, though Scorsese portrays him as the one character in the film who’s at least trying to understand what Jesus is saying. Indeed, the spiritual debate between Judas and Jesus is central to the film, and revolves around one of the basic precepts of theology: whether the world is rooted in the spirit or the flesh. Jesus, of course, insists that “the foundation is the soul” while Judas counters that “the foundation is the body.” Judas’ argument centers on politics and worldly concerns; he insists that people cannot properly attend to spiritual matters if their bodies are being oppressed, if they are subjected to unfair conditions in the world. Jesus presents the other side of the coin, the idea that the spirit is what really matters. The film comes down on Jesus’ side—how could it not?—but what I think is interesting is that it brings up the debate in the first place. It’s so refreshing to watch a film that treats religion so seriously, not just taking its basic assumptions as given but really questioning and engaging with everything from the ground up. It doesn’t get any more basic, in terms of religion, than the body/spirit divide, so it’s telling that Scorsese assigns the two halves of that dichotomy to the film’s two central characters.
JB: That’s quite right. Last Temptation doesn’t assume anything. In fact, it suggests that true belief and devotion come only through painful soul-searching—from having doubt and exploring that doubt. Earlier you mentioned the great scene at the cliff in which Jesus says he feels like God wants to push him over the edge, and my favorite scene in Last Temptation has a similar theme. It’s the one in which Scorsese captures Jesus from above as a he carves a circle around himself to wait for God’s word. The perfection of that big circle suggests godliness, but Jesus’ words defy that. “I’m not going to leave here until you speak to me,” he says. “No signs. No pain. Just speak to me in human words.” Even Jesus struggles with his faith, and in that scene he’s desperate for clarity—not because he wants righteousness or to avoid Hell but because he genuinely wants to do God’s will and he’s keenly aware of how easy it would be to do wrong in God’s name.
Just before this scene, John the Baptist sends Jesus into the desert with these words: “Be careful. God isn’t the only one out there.” The message seems to be that in order to find God, one must open up their heart and mind for doubt, must consider the alternatives. Blind faith, at least by one interpretation of the phrase, isn’t faith at all. On that note, when Jesus yells, “It is accomplished!” at the end of The Passion, it’s a triumph for God. In Last Temptation, however, the words are personal. Dafoe’s Jesus has had his faith tested repeatedly and only through that process has found complete belief. After a lifetime of longing for inner peace, he has finally arrived. I make this observation without judgment, fully aware that some believers must be particularly moved by the celebration of God’s triumph; and The Passion accomplishes that. But the more I think about these films, the more it seems to me that the key difference between them is this: To watch The Passion is to see Jesus. To watch Last Temptation is to know Jesus—within the film, that is.
EH: Your last lines remind me of the story of Thomas the apostle who, when Jesus returned from the dead, famously doubted the reality of what he was seeing, who needed to actually put his hands inside Jesus’ wounds before he believed the truth of the resurrection. The Passion seems to have been made for just such believers. It seems to have been made for the doubting Thomases who feel that to see is to believe, and that the physical reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection is what truly matters about this story. Last Temptation, of course, similarly makes Jesus tangible—that’s the nature of a movie, or any other visual representation—but the essence of the film is internal, introspective, rather than exterior and physical. That’s why Last Temptation seems so much more in touch with the depths of spirituality and belief—it’s not afraid to ask questions, to diverge from commonly accepted precepts, to engage with what it actually means to have faith. If The Passion limits itself to what can be seen and felt, to the worldly suffering of Jesus, Last Temptation digs down to a much deeper level, reaching towards the very roots of religious feeling.
Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.