Jason Bellamy: I never followed the amateur filmmaking documentary series Project Greenlight, which was perhaps best known for having celebrity producers (Matt Damon and Ben Affleck) and for failing to discover any major breakthrough talents, but I’ll never forget one of the episodes I happened to see. It was early in its third and final season, by which point Project Greenlight had expanded its diamond-in-the-rough search to be a contest not just for amateur screenwriters, but also amateur directors. In the episode in question I took delight in the method chosen to evaluate their pool of director nominees: All contestants were given identical screenplays offering nothing more than dialogue. No descriptions of settings. No descriptions of characters. No descriptions of action. Just words to be spoken. From that skeleton it was on the directors to dream up the rest, fill in the blanks and shoot a film. All these years later, I can’t remember anything about the dialogue, but I do remember that the interpretations were wildly diverse—one had a mob theme while another was set in a dentist’s office, as I recall. Same source material. Same words. Different films.
That brings us to this month’s edition of The Conversations, in which we will discuss Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, a pair of films that are remarkably and unmistakably different despite the numerous things they have in common, the most obvious of which is their general subject matter. Unlike the amateur directors vying to be on Project Greenlight, Scorsese and Gibson didn’t work from identical screenplays, and in a sense their screenplays aren’t even based on the same source material. Scorsese’s film begins with a disclaimer making it clear that The Last Temptation of Christ doesn’t follow the Scriptures, even though for the most part it does, but is instead based on the 1951 book of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis. And yet when one watches these films, or anything in which Jesus Christ is the central figure, there’s an almost unavoidable tendency to track its faithfulness to the Bible. Anything added to or removed from the narrative, anything noticeably altered from what can be found in the New Testament, seems on screen to be bolded and italicized—maybe because it should be, or maybe because cinematic representations of the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and/or John underline just how unspecific the Bible tends to be. When it comes to the life of Jesus, so much of the Bible is like those Project Greenlight scripts: dialogue on a page. No descriptions of settings. No descriptions of characters. No descriptions of action. Just words to be spoken.
Due to this lack of specificity, one might assume that cinematic interpretations of the Bible would, almost as a rule, be as diverse as the short films of those Project Greenlight finalists. Instead, the opposite tends to be true. Christian iconography is so deeply ingrained in this country that it’s difficult to break free of the flock, and it doesn’t help that movie audiences and critics tend to become shepherds, spotting strays and urging them back into the fold. Thus, as we discuss these films, some analysis of their theology, which involves some attention to the Bible itself, is of course appropriate and necessary. But I hope we can also look past all of that to see the films themselves. In a 2008 reevaluation of Last Temptation by Roger Ebert for his Great Movies series, he wrote, “It must have driven Martin Scorsese crazy to read reviews of The Last Temptation of Christ in which critics appointed themselves arbiters of the manhood or godliness of Jesus Christ, and scarcely mentioned the directing, the writing, the acting, the images or Peter Gabriel’s harsh, mournful music.” I think he has a point. But I’d like to start off this conversation with this question: Ed, for all practical purposes, is it possible to watch a film about Jesus Christ and not see it first and foremost as a religious statement?
Ed Howard: It’s maybe stating the obvious, but when you place Jesus at the center of a film, or any work of art, you’re making a religious statement of some kind, whether you mean to or not—and of course, it’s hard to imagine a filmmaker making a film about Jesus without intending some form of religious statement. Naturally, it’s equally hard for viewers to approach a film about Jesus without bringing their own perspective on Christianity to the table. And maybe they shouldn’t. After all, these films place Jesus at their respective centers for a reason; he’s not just another character, he’s the basis for an entire worldwide system of religious denominations. Any film about him has to deal with that on some level.
So while I agree with Ebert that to focus solely on Scorsese’s treatment of Jesus is to risk undervaluing the film’s cinematic virtues, by the same token to ignore what that film has to say about religion and spirituality would be to miss the point. It’s not a matter of looking past theology to see the film itself. The theology in Last Temptation is the essence of what is, after all, a film continually engaged with matters of spirituality, with the contrast between corporeality and the spiritual plane, with the ways in which spiritual messages are twisted and misunderstood by those who hear them. Scorsese’s Last Temptation is a sustained examination of the meaning of Jesus’ life and death, and of his messages. It’s a meditation on what it means to do God’s will. It deals with the thin line between religious conviction and what we’d ordinarily think of as insanity. I think it’s clear that, whatever else it is, Last Temptation is, “first and foremost… a religious statement.”
I’d say that the same thing applies to Gibson’s film, but then I’m convinced that only one of the films we’re talking about here actually has anything of substance on its mind about spirituality or religion.
JB: It’s interesting that you say that. Watching Last Temptation and The Passion on successive nights recently, I identified perplexing and praiseworthy elements in each film (which isn’t to imply they are distributed evenly), but I came away feeling that Scorsese’s picture is by far the more challenging and complex. It’s a film that’s not just about “the meaning of Jesus’ life and death, and of his messages,” but about what it means to wrestle with that man, with God and with those man/God messages. It’s a film about religion that’s deeply human and very personal. Ebert puts it quite well in that Great Movies piece when he says that “what makes The Last Temptation of Christ one of [Scorsese’s] great films is not that it is true about Jesus but that it is true about Scorsese.” I couldn’t agree more. One can really feel Scorsese grappling with the subject matter, putting equal thought and enthusiasm into each moment, no matter how contradictory it might feel compared to the one before it, in the hopes that when it’s all up on screen that some kind of deeper truth or understanding will result. It’s only fitting that a devout worshiper of cinema such as Scorsese would use film not just as a way to reveal his own feelings about Christianity but as a way to explore them. And, as such, Last Temptation feels like two quests—that of Jesus Christ and that of Martin Scorsese.
And yet the more I continue along these lines of thinking, the less dismissive I become about the substantiality of The Passion. Is the film as complex? No. Is it as provocative? No. Is it as conflicted? Heavens, no. But is it personal? Well, I think so, yes. And is it “engaged with matters of spirituality?” Why, certainly. The key difference is this: Where the dominant emotion of Scorsese’s film is doubt, the dominant theme of Gibson’s film is certainty. As someone who was raised going to Mass every Sunday, who was baptized and even confirmed, who attended a private Catholic high school and who, despite all of that, doesn’t believe in God and is skeptical of organized religion, I of course personally identify with Last Temptation’s themes of conflict and uncertainty. And yet I also see in The Passion an unblinking devotion that I think is all too easily dismissed as being unengaged. So, to loop back to my previous question, I agree with you that any film about Jesus Christ unavoidably makes a religious statement (which doesn’t mean we can’t sometimes successfully look beyond that). That said, Scorsese’s film is dominated with questions whereas Gibson’s film attempts to provide answers.
EH: The Passion is, no doubt about it, a very personal film. Like Scorsese’s film, The Passion is as much about its maker as it is about Jesus (who’s played by Jim Caviezel in Gibson’s version). And like Scorsese’s film, it’s infused at every moment with the personality and concerns of its director, who, needless to say, has some strong feelings about this subject. But while I’d agree with you that Scorsese is asking questions, I’m not sure that Gibson is providing answers—or even trying to. In a way, I feel like Gibson’s own passion, his unshakable certainty about these issues, actually prevents him from communicating anything of substance about religion or Jesus. So maybe I misspoke by saying that the film doesn’t have anything on its mind. It’s more that Gibson takes too much for granted. Everything he believes, everything he wants to say, is assumed to be a given rather than really being conveyed in the text of the film.
Like you, I was raised Catholic. I went to Mass every Sunday until I was around 18 or so, and for a while there I even tutored religious education classes. I’ve read much of the Bible, both through my early religious background and my continuing, secular interest. So I’ve been steeped in this material, even if, like you, I’ve drifted further and further away from believing in any of it. But imagine, for a moment, watching this film as someone who doesn’t have that background, who doesn’t know very much, if anything, about the story of Jesus or the theology of Christianity. What answers could The Passion provide to this hypothetical viewer who doesn’t have a strong religious background? What would the film have to say to someone who doesn’t already know the substance of this story? Moreover, what does the film have to say to a non-believer? Very little, I’d argue. This isn’t so much a film that provides answers as a film that confirms what people already believe and know; it’s a film made only for the devout.
It’s a film, also, that relies heavily on the devout to fill in the blanks, because Gibson leaves a lot of blanks. For a film about Jesus, it strangely contains very little of his words or messages, only a few fragments in flashbacks. It provides very little context about the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection. It purposefully limits its chronology to Jesus’ punishment leading up to his crucifixion; Gibson is concerned with the physical torment of Jesus’ body but has very little to say about the spiritual content of this sacrifice. This is why I say that the film isn’t really engaged with spirituality or religion in any significant way. The film has nothing to say in and of itself. It is instead an opportunity for some devout Christians to savor the suffering of their savior, while the rest of us are left scratching our heads, wondering why Gibson chose to focus so exclusively on blood and gore rather than actually dealing with why Jesus inspired so many people to begin with.
JB: I think that’s a fair and substantiated analysis, but I don’t agree with it entirely. For one, Gibson’s film is accurately named. The Passion is about the end of Jesus’ human life and not his birth or his religious campaign. With that understood, I don’t see that Gibson is leaving blanks so much as he is focusing narrowly, which is a fair choice. In that light, the flashbacks to the stoning of the adulteress (here, as in Scorsese’s film, depicted to be Mary Magdalene) or to the Last Supper, provide more emotional depth than Gibson’s narrow focus actually requires. Of course, it’s here that your argument comes in that this is “a film made only for the devout,” as those flashbacks and indeed the main thrust of the narrative are most powerful if the audience is knowledgeable enough to put them into context. That’s a fair point. But it goes a bit too far. I understand that not everyone in this country (the target audience for The Passion) was raised Catholic as we were, but how many narratives are better known than that of Jesus Christ, at least broadly speaking? So, sure, when we watch Jesus carve the line in the sand in The Passion, we never hear him delivering the words that he who is without sin should cast the first stone, but do we need that? This is a pretty straightforward allusion, and even those who would miss the specific meaning would understand the most important point: Jesus stepped in to stop a woman from being stoned. Make no mistake, that’s not the deepest meaning available to that “scene” as it plays out in The Passion or especially in the Bible, but it’s as deep as Gibson’s film needs it to be.
Also, while Last Temptation details more of Jesus’ life and influence, I’m not sure it’s accurate to say that it does a better job of showing “why Jesus inspired so many people to begin with.” Scorsese’s film excels at showing Jesus’ struggle with his identity, message and mission, but Last Temptation requires some suspension of disbelief, or just blind faith, when it comes to Jesus’ development as a spiritual leader. In Scorsese’s picture, when Jesus makes his first attempt at preaching to the people by delivering the Parable of the Sower, his delivery is hardly inspirational and the reaction of those kneeling on the hill around him is tepid to say the least. It’s a scene that makes one yearn for a Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment, so that during one of the crowd shots someone with a thick New York construction worker’s accent could say, “Who is this jaggoff?!” Instead, Jesus convinces a few with the parable, and then Scorsese inserts a montage in which we see Jesus walking through the desert as his disciples increase in number around him. Mostly, we don’t see Jesus winning the masses; we see only the final score.
My point is that both pictures would likely leave the hypothetical non-believer or the religiously clueless wondering what all the fuss is about, and so in that sense both films are for the devout or the religiously aware. Furthermore, both films are largely concerned with Jesus’ suffering. But while Last Temptation suggests Jesus primarily suffered emotionally, The Passion suggests that Jesus primarily suffered physically. These are two wildly different interpretations. Personally I find the first one far more compelling, but I’m not sure the second reading is any less valid.
EH: I grant that Gibson has intentionally narrowed the scope of his story, drawing on the lineage of the Passion play to focus solely on the time leading up to Jesus’ death. This is certainly an idea with precedents in Christian theology: not only in the re-enactments of the Passion plays, but in the Stations of the Cross spread out around the interior of many churches. Even so, I struggle to understand the point of the film, beyond a celebration of how much physical pain Jesus experienced. Maybe that’s enough for some people, just as the single-minded torture spectacles of the Saw films satisfy some audiences. Scorsese’s film, on the other hand, has its own gaps and oddities, but at least it has real ideas at its core. If Last Temptation is concerned with, among other things, how difficult it is to do God’s will when God seems to want something really terrifying and challenging from us, then what is The Passion actually about? Scorsese’s film demands engagement with its ideas and images; Gibson’s film simply pummels us with two solid hours of torture. I’d suggest that the non-religious, watching Last Temptation, may very well be lost with regard to some of its references and scenarios, but that Scorsese’s themes—doubt, faith, goodness and the hypocrisies of organized religions in contrast to genuine spirituality—will resonate nonetheless. I don’t think that’s the case with The Passion. I’m not sure what message it’s even sending, or what themes are at its core.