Part 1 – Scorsese, Kazantzakis, and the Gospels
Paul Deines: Evan, thank you for joining me and watching one of my favorite movies, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. It’s a revisionist reimagining of Jesus’ life that focuses on him as a profoundly fallible human figure. It’s 25 years since this film was released to much controversy, and I wanted to watch it with you because you are a Christian writer and performer.
Evan Hernandez: I came in pretty fresh, having only heard that it was, as you say, controversial. I’m amazed, actually, at how well people have kept the secret of how this movie ends.
PD: It’s definitely the only Jesus movie with a surprise ending.
EH: I had to let go of the idea that this was the story of Jesus of Nazareth from the Bible, and understand this is a character, named Jesus, who draws from the story of the Biblical Jesus. Accept it was outside of the God and man I believe in as a personal Lord and Savior, and experience it as what Kazantzakis said is an exploration of the emotion torment of trying to do what God asks of us in a broken world. As an emotional exploration of that I was able to enjoy it. Except at the moments I laughed so hard I couldn’t take it seriously.
PD: And why did you laugh?
EH: I think the biggest laughter moment for me was the moment Jesus pulls his heart out of his own chest. And it’s because the movie breaks its own rules for a moment. It’s no longer pulling from the Gospels of course, but it’s also no longer in the real world. I mean what does he do with his heart when he’s done? Put it back? What is it even symbolic of?
PD: That specific moment doesn’t bother me, actually. Last Temptation has a sort of Catholic magical realism to it. And that’s the most overt, I think, example of this aesthetic. And I’m Catholic. And you’re …
EH: Protestant. I tend to be more on the Evangelical charismatic side of that. I go to a Baptist church now.
PD: I was born post-Vatican II, but we still had holy cards in my house with images of Jesus Christ holding his heart; so the imagery is familiar. In a movie, however, the image moves and speaks, and that is strange.
PD: In preparation for this conversation I’ve been working my way through the Gospel of St. Matthew, so we could specifically discuss how this film diverges from the Bible.
EH: My understanding as a Christian is that Jesus is perfect, without sin, and he had a strong connection to his divinity going back to his childhood. And the Bible backs me up on this with the story of him visiting the priests at the age of 12. He was dedicated to learning his faith in an almost academic way from an early age, whereas in the film he seems more like a bumpkin lost in the middle of nowhere who's tortured by voices in his head.
PD: The Jesus of Last Temptation is contending with the realization of his divinity in a way that implies he never had that precocious youth. His being lost is pretty evident in the Sermon on the Mount scene.
EH: It does bother me when they change something as fundamental as the parable of the seeds. In the Bible, the disciples ask later what he meant, and he says the sower is sowing the Word about me, the Messiah. I think that actually sounds more insane, more dangerous, more risky than the movie version where he says “Love.” Love is a cheap answer. It’s a cop-out. I think that’s where the movie makes a turn toward the weaker answer that makes the character of Jesus less interesting.
PD: I think it makes Jesus more interesting. In the Bible, he says the sower is spreading the word about the messiah, because that Jesus knows he‘s the son of God. Willem Dafoe’s Jesus doesn’t know that. God is haunting him, and he knows he’s supposed to do something. But he doesn’t know what it is. So there’s this pause before he says “Love,” and I think that’s the best he can come up with. And he loses the crowd. Eventually he realizes he himself is the Messiah. He realizes his job is to be sacrificed; that’s the final transition.
Anyway, the weakest aspect of Last Temptation of Christ, for me, is how the film tries to hit all of Jesus’ greatest hits, even when they don’t necessarily serve the narrative. Because I think the film has this dynamic where it borrows the Jesus life-story as a springboard for separate spiritual narrative. But there are moments that are completely unnecessary but are there so the viewer has something to remember from Sunday school. A perfect example is the moment when he stops the crowd from stoning Magdalene to death:
PD: They’re really straining to get the “cast the first stone” line in.
EH: It brings up an interesting point, which is that the film often takes an opposite position on a biblical story that I think is less interesting. And Peter’s denial of Jesus is a perfect example. In the Bible, it’s a fantastic moment when Peter’s with a group of people around a fire outside the palace, and he’s not interrogated by a crowd of angry people like in the movie but by a servant girl. And he freaks out not being able to answer her when she asks if he’s a follower of Jesus. It’s more interesting than the angry crowd. It’s like John the Baptist. In the movie, he’s a crazy cult-leader.
(Incidentally, the video below is NSFW.)
PD: When we initially discussed that I said tent revivalist. And you said –
EH: I said head of an LSD-fueled cult. But I think it’s interesting that in the Bible, Jesus and The Baptist are cousins and have known each other their whole lives, but in the movie they’re strangers. And that sacrifices all of the complex familial stuff you get in the gospel. Artistically, I feel that’s a weaker choice.
PD: Yes, but I love how that scene plays upon the notion that the Baptist is immediately drawn to Jesus, though they’ve never met.
EH: Another example, the storming of the Temple – in the Bible he prepares for that. It’s not spur-of-the-moment. He makes a whip of cords in advance and clears the whole Temple, but in this movie, he freaks out and everyone fights back. No one runs, like they do in Scripture. Rather they force him out.
PD: I always felt there was a general misunderstanding about that story anyway. Most people think Jesus is angry that the money-changers are like, taking a little off the top. Even the movie implies that. But he’s angry that the item given – money, crops, a calf – is holy, but only because it is worth something on earth. Jesus is arguing the act is holy because it is an act of devotion. This Temple, he argues, is not innately holy because of everything in it. It is holy because God is in it.
PD: I think the first time you see this movie – especially if you saw it before Passion of the Christ came out – you get the impression there has never been a Bible epic this realistic. This is what it was really like: everyone’s dirty and they cut away frequently to people with actual physical deformities. It’s raw, yes, but it’s not really historically accurate. This isn’t what Judea looked like.
EH: No. For one thing, everywhere he goes looks like a desert. There’s clear historical evidence that the arid nature of this region has intensified over the last 1,000 years. You’re talking about part of the world that’s gone from being described as rich, full of game, and full of pasture and farmland, to a place described as a desert. So the film locations are ineffective because, for example, when Jesus enters the desert to be tempted, it looks like he’s going from a desert to a desert, with no discernible difference. The temptation place is only slightly more desert-y. New Mexico to Death Valley.
It really misses the point that in Biblical times you’re looking at a more rich and verdant area. It’s supposed to be a land flowing with milk and honey. The reason that saying is so important is you cannot have milk without cattle. No cattle without grazing. You cannot have honey without bees. Can’t have bees without trees in which to make their hives or flowers for their pollen. So, flowing with milk and honey is a symbol of lots and lots of agricultural options. This movie cuts that out.
PD: Well, you see Jesus when he happens first upon Peter and his brother Andrew, the fisherman. You see him find the fisherman, but never the shepherd, because where are these sheep? There’s no grass anywhere. But later, when the last temptation happens and Jesus comes off the cross, he goes to a very green place that maybe is closer to what you’re talking about.
EH: That looks more like Northern California, though.
PD: Yeah, or Ireland. With woodlands.
EH: Or maybe it’s supposed to be Northern France, with the whole idea that Dan Brown posits that Jesus didn’t die but moved to Northern France with Mary Magdalene, and there are many people that think that.
PD: And here’s the thing: as an artistic vision, the design team’s choice to paint this world as unrelentingly, uninhabitably bleak must be an expressionistic choice. Like a Beckett play’s landscape, I think the world of Last Temptation is meant to make physical the notion of living in a godforsaken time. I wonder if every subjugated person in the film is supposed to be waiting for a Messiah to make it verdant. I love this film now, not because it’s realistic, but because it is spiritual realism. Everyone is palpably waiting for the miracle to come, believing that it will come, and expecting that when it comes it will be a physical occurrence.
Speaking of miracles, let’s talk the raising of Lazarus. It’s another familiar story that they find an elegant variation is the raising of Lazarus. All the familiar points: he’s been in the grave in extreme heat for days and the roll away the stone.
EH: Yeah, and everyone is holding their noses. The smell is terrible.
PD: But then they do something really interesting which is that they shoot the sequence from inside the grave and for a really extended shot we see him – head on – staring into the darkness, and for someone who is not certain why God is touching him like this it is scary. Can I do this? Do I want to do this? What will even happen if I do this? And Lazarus’s hand comes out and when Jesus takes it, for just a moment, he gets pulled into the grave. And then he pulls him back out. Then, screenwriter Paul Schrader adds a sad political coda where the zealots, led by Saul, murder the risen Lazarus. What did you think about that?
EH: Lazarus is a strange figure in the Bible, because he does seem to disappear. It’s not a stretch, the idea that Saul would murder him because biblically that’s the type of thing Saul might have done. But Saul’s definitely the wrong age in the movie. In scripture, he was fairly young at the time of Jesus’ death.
PD: But in Scorsese’s defense: you have the option to cast Harry Dean Stanton, you cast Harry Dean Stanton.
EH: But he would not have been a political leader at this time, the time of Lazarus’s rising from the dead. In the movie it’s interesting, and it doesn’t really irritate me.
PD: There are moments in this movie that work on a visceral emotional level, and they are stranded in the midst of the overall ponderousness of the film. Another one is the section where Jesus is preparing the enter Jerusalem with the apostles, and Scorsese seems to canvass them about what to expect. It’s a great moment that asks what these men, in the prime of their life, individually want from following Jesus.
PD: And that feels real to me, those interchanges.
EH: That is one of the more satisfying things about the Gospels: the slow character changes in the disciples as they go from thinking this is a political thing to realizing it’s something totally different. Something historically and theologically compelling is that you can assume, in a world as small as Galilee and the outskirts of Jerusalem at this time, all the disciples would have known Jesus before they followed him. They may even have been family friends.
PD: Joseph and Mary’s kid.
EH: Right. They think they know who he is. So it’s interesting that in the film they don’t seem to have awareness of him before. I admit, that level of backstory is difficult in something as short as a movie.
PD: That is disappointing, though. Early on when he’s preaching, a soon-to-be apostle whispers “He’s from Nazareth,” and someone next to him says, “Ah, nothing good can come from Nazareth. Even the prophets say that.” It’s just the clunkiest dialogue.
EH: It’s directly from the Bible, but you're right. They did bend over backward to put it in there.
PD: If I was Martin Scorsese, I’d find a more natural way to say that. Think of Nazareth as the roughest parts of Bed Stuy, and how would I feel if some punk from the projects corners me and tries to tell me how to live my life?
PD: So let’s discuss all the things people found offensive about The Last Temptation of Christ. I’m a Catholic that vacillates between cafeteria and lapsed, but you are a genuine church-goer, and I want to hear an Evangelical Christian’s take on this.
In Part 2, we discuss the controversy that surrounds The Last Temptation of Christ and compare it to that other controversial biblical epic, Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ.
Evan Hernandez is a writer and producer based in New York City. His play, A Great Light is embarking on its first tour this holiday season and his debut novel, Breaking the Skies, is set to be published in 2014. For more information, find him on Twitter, @totallyberserk.