Editor's note: the author of this piece requested to remain anonymous - mb
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With few exceptions, the iconography of religious films has been fairly static – bearded actors wearing gathered linens speak in hushed tones against rustic backdrops. For decades, this approach worked for both audiences and critics, rewarding films like Quo Vadis, Ben-Hur, and Spartacus with huge box office and record-breaking Oscar nominations alike. But when Martin Scorsese first developed his adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ in 1983, he planned to raze that approach to the ground, recruiting Paramount’s Barry Diller by telling him that he “wanted to get to know Jesus” using a contemporary setting that evoked Pasolini’s neorealist The Gospel According to St. Matthew more than Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. Aidan Quinn was set to play Jesus Christ opposite Prince protégé Vanity as Mary Magdalene, with Sting cast as Pontius Pilate.
A new distributor, three leads, five years and dozens of protestors later, Scorsese’s film was released into theaters, offering a depiction of Jesus that was, at once, more and less like what audiences had come to expect. Although it was shot in Morocco with a cast of bearded, linen-clad white men playing Middle Easterners as Franco Zeffirelli had done with Jesus of Nazareth, Scorsese used contemporary flourishes to contemporize his characters and story and more broadly, challenge conventional portraits of the Messiah. Although the end result not only met with considerable controversy, it’s these departures that enabled The Last Temptation of Christ to not only become a singular depiction of Biblical history, but create one of the most resonant, and relatable, spiritual journeys ever filmed.
Religious films, like the sacred texts that inspire them, can often be solemn, dry, unengaging experiences without some sort of anchor or entryway, especially for unfamiliar or secular viewers. At the same time, the notion of “updating,” interpreting or departing from the source material in any way is often seen as deeply offensive, even blasphemous, to those devoted to traditional interpretations. Suffice it to say that Scorsese’s adaptation of Kazantzakis’ eponymous novel, which drew criticism upon its release in 1955 for its complex, humanistic portrait of Jesus, met with considerable controversy upon its announcement - leading its original distributor, Paramount, to eventually put it in turnaround. Nevertheless, Scorsese persevered, and successfully mounted his film four years later at Universal, drawing further ire from a religious community that did not believe it needed to be seen to condemn it.
What critics would have seen, however, was (and remains) one of the most persuasive, resonant and relatable depictions of religious faith ever put on film. The great temptation Jesus faces in the film is to be “merely” human – to live unencumbered by the expectations put on him as the Son of God, where he would be free to marry, fall in love, raise a family, and die of old age. Far from the serene and indefatigable leader he has been portrayed as time and again, Scorsese’s Jesus is alternately depressed, doubtful, afraid, lustful, and scornful of his role in God’s plan – although, importantly, he obeys it in spite of these shortcomings.
As a carpenter, Jesus builds the crosses used to crucify Jews; as a moral leader, he confesses not only his sins, but his doubts. These unquestionably violate the image presented of Jesus in the Bible, but they also speak to his humanity. Rather than delivering fully-formed proverbs or poetic adages, he speaks conversationally, working through what obviously become Biblical parables in a modern vernacular that highlights his ordinariness. And perhaps most crucially, as he learns, and grows, his philosophy changes – first being an embodiment of love, then violence, and finally sacrifice – not only to suit the needs of his disciples, but the demands of his own maturity and enlightenment. Even as the Son of God, he is a man struggling with the responsibilities, and most of all, the meaning of his faith – as universal a feeling as exists in human history.
Offensive as the prospect of an uncertain, conflicted Jesus was, critics readily pounced on more distracting – and quite frankly largely cosmetic – choices such as Scorsese’s embrace of actors who, by design, failed to adapt their natural accents to the expectations of a religious epic. Notwithstanding the fact that the film is in English, almost no one in the film shares the same accent, except incidentally, and none are deliberately performed to match a time period or geographic region. In particular, Harvey Keitel was excoriated for playing Judas as if he emigrated from Brooklyn, receiving a Razzie nomination for his performance.
It’s a fair statement to call Scorsese a consummate New York filmmaker given his pedigree as a purveyor of stories about the Big Apple, not to mention a close collaborator with the stable of actors we’ve come to associate with that city, such as Robert De Niro, Keitel and Victor Argo, who plays Peter. But even if it seemed like a case of the filmmaker recruiting some old friends to play key roles in Last Temptation regardless of their suitability, Scorsese’s choices were not a matter of professional nepotism; rather, their inclusion further modernized the text of Kazantzakis’ book, giving the Gospel a jarring but sorely needed jolt of energy. Judas’ febrile indignation towards the Romans, and later, Jesus himself, feels vivid, unpracticed and believable. These are not stodgy characters from history but living, breathing people who had real feelings about the complicated decisions they faced, and who viewers can see in themselves.
What’s remarkable about these choices is not that they work, or they energize material that is so well known that it almost lacks the capacity to be fresh or surprising. It’s that they resonate with audiences, deeply, even and perhaps especially those disinclined to subject themselves to spiritual self-examination. The story itself is a complete reimagining of so many of the familiar beats of the Bible that it’s beneficial, but unnecessary to know the original stories that inspired them; one needs not be Christian to identify with the vulnerability or self-doubt that Jesus faces. But we all face doubt. We all search for a sense of purpose. And we all struggle to find our place, and our role, in a world that often misunderstands us as frequently as we misunderstand it.
The Last Temptation of Christ is, ultimately, a treatise on compassion, a plea for patience and understanding writ large using the rhythm, if not the exact language, of the most famous piece of literature ever written. Like all of the greatest stories ever told, it uses incredibly specific details to tap into profound larger truths – the biggest of which may be that in the enormous divide between religion and faith, we’re all together, searching for the same kind of meaning for our lives, only using different words – or different pronunciation, anyway.