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Summer of ‘88: Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ

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.

Summer of ‘88: Fathers and Sons—The Last Temptation of Christ
Photo: Universal Pictures

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.

III. The Good Land

That Marquette is a Jesuit institution may suggest to some an unflinching rigidity, and admittedly, at times, that quality was there. Eight years and two degrees later, I still felt, in essence, like an outsider. Yet the atmosphere could be open in surprising ways. I hadn’t a prayer of seeing the movie in Nashville, where I had just graduated from high school. And even if by some miracle a print of Last Temptation had been smuggled into the state (as The Simpsons taught us, “Tennesseein’ is Tennebelievin’”), I likely would have had to go it alone. Earlier that summer I’d been accused of enjoying “innerlectual movies,” after I coerced a couple of pals into seeing Daniel Petrie Jr.’s playful romantic thriller The Big Easy instead of their choice, Disorderlies, starring the Fat Boys (if my friends were indifferent to the celebrated Dennis Quaid-Ellen Barkin sex scene, I can only imagine their bewilderment toward Willem Dafoe and Barbara Hershey’s hallucinatory fornication). Marquette was in Milwaukee, the northernmost city I have yet to inhabit, in a state that had been home to the likes of Hank Aaron, Fighting Bob La Follette, and Peter Bonerz (not to mention Joe McCarthy, Kato Keilin, and, living only six blocks from campus when I was there, Jeffrey Dahmer). Nationwide, however, the release of Last Temptation was in such doubt I wasn’t optimistic about my chances anywhere, even in the region whose Algonquin heritage Alice Cooper spoke of so fondly.

As it happened, though, a few weeks into the fall semester, Last Temptation was scheduled to play at Milwaukee’s Downer Theater ,beginning on Friday, Sept. 23, 1988, and for that weekend a bus had been arranged to take anyone from campus who wanted to see it. I don’t know the reason behind the field trip other than that, possibly, the organizers (who were MU faculty) were as curious as I was. I hopped on the bus with maybe 20 other students, and it dropped us off in front of the theater. We wended our way through an outnumbered dozen or so protesters, who wielded signs but didn’t hassle us. Inside, we joined an at-capacity audience and watched the movie.

Apparently, that sell-out crowd wasn’t a fluke. Thomas R. Lindlof’s Hollywood Under Siege: Martin Scorsese, the Religious Right, and the Culture Wars reports that Last Temptation “was extraordinarily popular in its two-month run” at the Downer, “the cumulative total of more than 20,000 moviegoers breaking the house record” (Lindlof adds that the film appeared in the deep South after all, most prominently in Atlanta, “sneaking into town like a thief in the night”). Still, the success of the movie in limited release shouldn’t obscure the fact that that release remains limited to this day. The movie endures. But, to a degree, so does the impact of the rhetoric.

IV. Grace Notes and Rough Edges

I admired the movie despite a few awkward passages—or, rather, I found the awkwardness oddly admirable, with lyrical images caught seemingly on the fly (consider the haunting expression on Harvey Keitel’s face when Judas witnesses Jesus restoring the slave’s ear during his arrest at Gethsemane). My only serious debate about Last Temptation occurred the following summer with a sneering friend back in Nashville. He hadn’t seen the film and didn’t seem to hold any moral objection against it, but he claimed that Siskel and Ebert hated it and therefore it must be lousy. He was thinking of Lyons and Medved. Both Siskel & Ebert & the Movies and Sneak Previews aired the same clip, wherein Jesus confronts the moneychangers in the Temple (culminating with a striking image of coins tossed in the air), as evidence that the movie was, depending on your viewpoint, a masterpiece or an atrocity.

Last Temptation remained divisive enough that I was unable to rent it from Blockbuster, and I didn’t see any part of the film again until Martin Scorsese and Roger Ebert’s 1997 extended conversation of the director’s career at The Ohio State University in Columbus (transcribed in Scorsese by Ebert). I had invited my father to attend. Based on the comments from a group seated behind us, the audience was comprised of a significant portion of mucky-mucks who were there to honor Scorsese (that year’s recipient of the Wexner Prize) without having more than the dimmest idea who he was. After the event, the audience shuffled out quieter than when they entered.

Ebert presented a barrage of the bloodiest scenes from Scorsese’s movies to much squirming and discomfort among the crowd, and a woman sitting a few rows to our right fainted during Last Temptation’s crucifixion sequence, when the camera arcs around Willem Dafoe as he shouts, “Why have you forsaken me?” (She recovered.) My father, who had yet to see the film in its entirety, had no discernible reaction. For me, it remained a powerful moment. And I can’t help but suspect that, if Scorsese had worked with the originally approved, larger budget, and if Last Temptation had been more polished, like much of his later work (which is too polished, at times, if you ask me), the end result would have been less powerful than it is.

V. Every Day a Different Plan

This story (“The Parable of the Knock at the Door”) will sound apocryphal. But I swear it is true. My father, as you may have gathered, doesn’t suffer fools. Using words for weapons, I have seen him eviscerate plenty of adversaries over the years. He and I have had our share of skirmishes as well. Sometimes, in conflict, he can be hilariously wry; at other times, frighteningly explosive (“It’s hot in the furnace, man….”). This is why I wonder sometimes if I respond to Keitel’s Judas in Last Temptation not only on account of the actor’s performance, or the character’s conception (immeasurably more interesting as the only disciple strong enough to betray Jesus, rather than a stock villain motivated by petty avarice), but because this Judas, unlike any other on screen before or since, feels intimately familiar—quick to both ire and sentiment, set in a particular system of belief, frustrated whenever plans change unexpectedly, yet always striving to understand.

A few years after seeing Scorsese at OSU, I watched Last Temptation with both of my parents, when I managed to snag a DVD from a privately-owned video store in Columbus. An intense theological discussion followed. By “intense” I mean riotous, and by “theological” I mean my father twisting brilliantly insightful knots into the notion of Christ (“Oh, yeah, just one more question, about that time he pulled his heart out….”). It wasn’t quite along the lines of Rowan Atkinson’s “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spigot” from Four Weddings and a Funeral, but suffice to say he had us in stitches. I’m not sure if he liked the movie or not, but it seemed to have intrigued him. My mother started cobbling together a shopping list during the climactic 40-minute dream sequence but liked everything up to that; the ex-evangelical in her appreciated the film for trying to tell a familiar story in a fresh way. The three of us talked in the living room for a while before arriving at our respective summations.

“I don’t believe in God,” my father announced.

“I don’t believe in God either,” I declared.

“I don’t know if I believe in God or not,” my mother opined. Even though, of course, she did. On cue, at that moment, there was a knock at the door. My father rose from the couch and opened it to a pair of nice clean-cut young men in white shirts and dark ties. They were very polite. They had come to save us.

Sometimes I wish I had that much faith. But the truth is I need to see things in order to believe in them. In terms of eternity, I’m neither enticed by metaphorical carrots nor threatened by figurative sticks. “The Word” alone has never convinced me, regardless of who delivers it. So whenever I have sought transcendence, I’ve gone to the movies. And every now and then—like in the final scene of Last Temptation, when the ineffable “is accomplished” and Christ’s resurrection implied by the film’s refusal to depict it—they deliver. Yet, in the real world, when I have been in pain, when I have felt alone or let down, when “The Plan” (if there ever is one) has changed so often that none of the divergent paths seem to matter, I’ve been left with the nagging sensation that movies aren’t enough. When the final image in Last Temptation turns overexposed, when we are reminded that we are watching only a movie, perhaps even Scorsese is suggesting he senses this too.

Consequently I have come to find myself longing for grace without ever expecting it. So after those nice young men finished their sales-pitch about God and Jesus and salvation, I braced myself for the inevitable. My father hates unwanted visitors. He would put them in their place. First, he would yell at them. And then he would slam the door. And then he would rage about the encounter for a long time afterwards. And then—

“Thank you, but we’re not interested. Have a nice day.”

He said it with love.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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