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When people talk about their favorite Martin Scorsese movie they’re probably talking about something along the lines of Goodfellas or Taxi Driver. When it’s me talking about that subject, it might very likely be The Last Temptation of Christ that I’m discussing.
I’ve written about this movie a lot in my time at CHUD, simply because I find it one of the most moving motion pictures of all time. It’s the kind of movie I could see basing a faith on; Scorsese’s depiction of Christ (based, of course, on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis) is a harrowingly human take on the messiah, and one that I can understand. I never understood a Jesus who got nailed to that cross without a serious second thought, a Jesus who was so sure of his own divinity (and so filled with the divine in his day to day life) that this was an irritation instead of a terror. To me the Jesus I learned about in Catechism was Superman while Scorsese’s Christ was Peter Parker as a teenaged Spider-Man – filled with doubt, filled with fear, but doing the right thing anyway, no matter how much he’d rather be doing something more comfortable and safer.
Of course a lot of other people do not agree with this. They want their Jesus to be Superman – perfect, unknowable, without flaw. And they get pretty worked up about this particular difference of opinion, and when The Last Temptation of Christ came out they made their difference of opinion known loudly, and in at least one case, violently.
Thomas R. Lindlof’s Hollywood Under Siege: Martin Scorsese, The Religious Right, and the Culture Wars is a must-own book that tracks not only the tortured route Temptation took to the screen (Scorsese tried to get it made for years; at one point he told Paramount he would direct Flashdance 2 if they gave him the money to make Temptation) and its production but the insane backlash the film caused in the Christian community.
Lindlof did a ton of research – this was released by an academic press – and he has an incredible insight into the world of the people who started the protests and the voices that tried to shout down Universal and Scorsese. One group raised money in an attempt to equal the film’s budget so they could buy the negative and burn it. Thousands marched on Universal Studios, despite the fact that not a single person in the protest movement had seen the movie that upset them so greatly. And all across America theaters that dared to show the movie were targeted with bomb threats. A guy actually drove his truck into a theater playing Last Temptation.
Lindlof makes a very convincing case that The Last Temptation of Christ was the Pearl Harbor of the Culture Wars that we’re still fighting to this day. It’s a terrifying story of massive intolerance, religious ignorance and superstitious dipshits as well as an inspiring story of a director’s vision and an executive’s surprising commitment to that vision. Universal could have just dropped Scorsese and Temptation, but they fought with him to the bitter end. That’s the kind of stance it’s hard to imagine the Tom Rothmans of the world taking today.
Why were these religious lunatics so upset? Because the movie shows Jesus having sex with Mary Magdalene, marrying her and having kids. But it shows this in the context of an illusion, a temptation Satan (in the form of a little girl) throws at Christ as he’s on the cross. In the last moments Jesus is forced to see the life he is denying himself – the love, the happiness, the human moments – so that he can fulfill a vague destiny he doesn’t fully understand. I’m not religious in any way but this concept, of a man who gives up everything (and who understands what he’s giving up; this Christ isn’t a complete monk who is afraid of his flesh, he’s a man who battles with it) for the benefit of everyone yet to come, is one that I find incredibly emotional and meaningful. A god getting up on that cross is devoid of impact – a man, a real man, who feels like a real man feels, getting up on that cross is almost mind blowing.
Scorsese’s film is beautiful and inspirational, and it’s also a touch weird. The low budget means that there’s a seriousness sparseness to everything, but I think that works. And Scorsese’s vision of the Twelve Apostles as regular dudes does serve to keep many people from really getting into the movie. Harvey Keitel, playing Judas, and the rest of the guys use colloquialisms and urban accents (lots of Brooklyn here) to make you understand that these guys were the blue collar men of their day. The accents we’re used to in Biblical films – hoity toity English – are just as phony, but at least these accents are trying to recreate an aspect of who these men were.
The Last Temptation of Christ is long, and it can be difficult, but I think it’s completely rewarding. I don’t think streaming on Hulu with commercial breaks is the best way to see this movie, but this is a movie you must see, and if not now, when?
When you’re done watching (or if you’ve seen it before), click here to order Hollywood Under Siege from CHUD. This book should be on every Scorsese fans’ shelf.