Part 2: Passion and Revulsion
This is Part 2 of a three-part dialogue between Paul Deines and Christian writer Evan Hernandez about Martin Scorsese’s biblical epic, The Last Temptation of Christ. You can read Part 1 – dealing with the film’s differences with the Gospels – here.
Paul Deines: A quarter century after its release, The Last Temptation of Christ is sort of a touchstone for controversial filmmaking. Let’s do a lightning round about all the things people found offensive.
Evan Hernandez: Harvey Keitel’s hair?
PD: I’ll rattle them off and you give me your reaction. Because I’m a Catholic that vacillates between cafeteria and lapsed, but you are a genuine church-goer. I want to hear an Evangelical Christian’s take on this.
PD: So: Jesus makes crosses for the Romans. What do you think about that one?
EH: This is the first moment when I have to say: this isn’t the Jesus I believe in. Not because of the crosses, really. What offends people is him being a tortured soul, and that’s really what the film is exploring. I think Christians are more offended – less by the crosses – than by the idea that he doesn’t understand his divinity at all.
PD: Next: Jesus asks Judas to betray him ...
EH: It’s an interesting idea, and I’m not surprised people were offended by it. Scripture is pretty clear that God does not give us temptation beyond our capability to handle it. So, this would absolve Judas. I wasn’t bothered by that; this scene isn't in the Bible, but in the Gospels it is clear Jesus knows what Judas is up to. Judas also has a few different descriptions in the Bible. He wasn’t a zealot, like in the movie.
PD: Isn’t he a tax collector?
EH: Nope, that’s Matthew. There was a zealot in the apostles, but that was Simon.
PD: Which we all remember from Jesus Christ Superstar.
EH: There you go. In scripture, Judas is described as possibly being a thief.
PD: In this script, He's a zealot, and the zealots have a bit of a subplot. I think we should discuss how Rome is portrayed in the film. The omnipresent force in the narrative that and comes to the forefront only when Jesus is arrested but always seems to exist on the periphery, specifically in opposition to the Zealots. They are led – again, in the movie – by Saul –
EH: Saul who will be Paul.
PD: What’s missing is the Jewish authority. They exist as a sort as a puppet state. The only power they have is given to them by Rome, and let’s be clear: that’s historically correct.
EH: Historically, this is a very brief period during which Israel was ruled by Herod. It was like a personal gift to him from the Romans. Jerusalem is part of real Jewish state.
PD: Yes, but Herod was a puppet dictator.
EH: He had slightly more autonomy than, say, a Roman governor.
PD: Well, that’s what makes the Gospel’s story of Jesus’ arrest so interesting to me: it’s basically a power struggle between two puppet rulers. Pilate and Herod keep sending Jesus back and forth, claiming it’s not in their authority to sentence him, mostly because they don’t want to be held responsible for a revolt.
EH: I’d love to see a story or a short play about the law scholars dealing with that struggle, trying to figure out what they were charging Jesus with or whether their bosses even have the right to crucify him. I mean, he’s charged with sedition, but he’s never actually raised an insurgency.
PD: And that’s the root, from what I understand, of the new book Zealot by Reza Aslan, that the one thing a historian knows for certain about Jesus of Nazareth is that he was crucified. Crucifixion was only for those who started an uprising against Rome. So, if nothing else, we know the Romans wanted him dead for sedition.
PD: But as I said, Pharisees are missing from The Last Temptation of Christ. It’s an interesting counterpoint to The Passion of the Christ. Both movies were really hated, before they premiered, by the particular ideological groups. Conservatives hated Last Temptation; liberals hated Passion . The early negative press for Last Temptation had a lot of misinformation in it, saying it portrayed Jesus as gay.
EH: That’s what I always heard about it. I think to this day, some people think that’s what the movie is about. I eventually figured out – without seeing The Last Temptation – that it wasn’t about a gay Jesus because I became familiar with Scorsese.
PD: Who is very Catholic, and all of his protagonists are always seeking some sort of Catholic-specific absolution. Which is really one thing I could agree could be blasphemous about this movie: the idea that Jesus needs absolution. Paul Schrader the screenwriter – who also wrote Taxi Driver and Raging Bull for Scorsese, and great personal projects like Hardcore, Affliction and Autofocus  – is a Calvinist, and he says that this film is arguably irreligious because it uses Jesus as an allegorical figure, and you don’t use your messiah as an allegorical figure.
EH: It says something to me that he doesn’t include the resurrection at all. The resurrection’s the whole point. If you don’t have the resurrection, you don’t have Christianity. I have a pastor friend who says consistently if scientists were ever able to identify human remains as belonging to Jesus of Nazareth, that would be the end of Christianity. It relies upon the resurrection from the dead, and this movie ignores that completely.
PD: I don’t think the movie implies he wasn’t resurrected. It doesn’t show the stone moving away, but the final moment implies a divine triumph. The story of that last shot is that a crack in the camera exposed the film right as Dafoe says “It is accomplished.” And that makes the shot go all insane and sort of hallucinatory.
 PD: For those who don’t recall, the backlash against Gibson’s film was primarily focused on his portrayal of the Jewish authorities as solely responsible for Jesus’ death. There was particular indignation over his inclusion of the line, “Let His blood be upon us,” spoken by a Sanhedrin.
 PD: The story goes on to say that as they watched the dailies, and Scorsese saw that exposed take and said, “There’s our resurrection.”
PD: No offense, but I think that final moment is a billion times more effective than the idiotic final shot of The Passion of the Christ. Remember: where he walks out of the tomb like the Terminator.
EH: I don’t even remember that. The last image I remember from Passion of the Christ is a raindrop falling, which I thought was great.
PD: The one moment of artistry in that film.
EH: Well, what David Mamet says is the last moment anyone actually remembers should be the last moment.
PD: Check out the actual last moment when you have a chance. It’s pretty ridiculous. And the reason I like Last Temptation is it’s the Jesus film that’s trying the hardest to cope with the reality of a living Messiah. The only other contender is Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Gospel According to Saint Matthew. Pasolini was the gay atheist Communist who made such classics as Salo and Teorema, and while in Assisi to meet with Pope John XXIII, he got bored in his hotel room and ended up reading Matthew’s gospel in the room’s Bible. He was so struck by it he decided it would be his next film, which he shot in the poorest, oldest regions in the south of Italy with nonprofessional actors and no script except the Gospel. Jesus sounds almost like a union organizer.
But to get back to Last Temptation: despite its legion flaws, I love that it works incredibly hard to reckon with Jesus the man, Jesus the prophet, and Jesus the sacrifice, and how those coexist. In a way Passion of the Christ didn’t.
EH: I think the value of The Passion is this: we live in a culture where we never see death and bloodshed. A hundred years ago, if I went to a butcher shop, I’d see a pig slaughtered. I could watch the blood and see a creature die. Odds are I’d know someone who died young. 150 years ago, odds are I’d attended a public execution. This is the first century where public violence is nonexistent and death is muted by technology. We keep people alive as long as we can, and there are only a handful of people who have seen a violent death. Passion of the Christ did a good job of showing us that Jesus did not just have a lethal injection for my sins. He did not die by hanging, even, for my sins. Jesus was butchered and made to march through town with a heavy beam on this shredded back. This type of pain and suffering is something my generation has not seen in person, and the only place we may see it is in a movie. Portrayed in a way that is designed to turn your stomach. Now, whether that has eternal artistic value is hard to say, but I do know that a lot of people saw The Passion of the Christ and said, “I never thought to it that way.”
PD: I went to Catholic school for 12 years, and every Good Friday we’d have a half day and do the Stations of the Cross and learn all about the crucifixion. We learned all about the historical physical details of crucifixion, and the scourging. We were taught all this in a very portentous way, and so I was driven crazy by Gibson’s film. Because I think your argument is a legitimate argument, except The Passion was not historically accurate. Jesus would not have carried a full cross (only the crossbeam). He would not have had nails driven through his hands (they would have gone through his wrists). His legs would have been on either side of the cross. Also, he would not have been a white man. Finally, I really don’t think Mel Gibson is a very good director. I love Braveheart as much as the next guy, but The Passion has scenes that are next-level stupid. Like the weird B-movie moment like when a crow plucks out the eye of the thief who mocks at Jesus.
EH: Except –
PD: That’s not in the Bible, is it?
EH: No, but it is in Last Temptation. One of the apostles talks about how crows eat out the eyes of crucified people. It’s interesting that that bothered you only in The Passion.
PD: It is something that happened historically, and I don’t mind it being discussed. But the fact that Gibson created a messenger-from-God crow sent down to punish the thief from mocking his son indicates to me that he’s not a serious director.
PD: Well, I also remember how much Gibson went out of his way to absolve Pilate, illustrating again and again how powerless this humble Roman official was against one bile-filled group who wanted Jesus dead. And I feel like if Gibson wanted to make a historically accurate Jesus picture, he might have made an effort to honestly explore the real political relationship between Judea and Rome, just for a moment to provide real context. Or alternately he could have made it a totally Jesus-focused story and ignore the whole Pilate political issue. But instead he chose to create a sort of patently false side narrative about a sad-sack closet-Christian Pilate who cannot stand up to the motivelessly malevolent Jewish hierarchy. I don’t know – many thoughtful, virtuous and intelligent people like Passion of the Christ, and I won’t go so far as to say it’s an anti-Semitic movie.
EH: Well, Pilate is really one of the best-portrayed characters in the Gospels, and there are these really interesting conversations where Pilate clearly does not know how to deal with this situation. He’s basically a middle manager stuck in this fantastic circumstance, trying to decide what best to do.
PD: Going back, though: The Last Temptation of Christ is comprised of lots of interesting sections that often don’t work well together at all, and it ends with a strange stand-alone short film.
(SPOILER WARNING, READERS: WE’LL BE DISCUSSING THE FILM'S BIG TWIST IN THE PARAGRAPHS BELOW.)
EH: The twist at the end does something far more interesting than anything that came before it. People find it horribly offensive, because he‘s on the cross and a little girl comes out of crowd and informs him that he doesn’t have to die. She’s his guardian angel, and God doesn’t want him to die. So, he comes off the cross, and he’s magically transported to a cabin in the woods with Mary Magdalene.
EH: He impregnates her, and she suddenly dies midway through the pregnancy. Then, he ends up with Mary and Martha in – this is a little weird – a strange polygamous marriage. At one point he meets Saul who is now Paul who is preaching about the risen Christ, and Jesus tells him, “I wasn’t crucified and I never rose from the dead.”
EH: So, Jerusalem burns, and the apostles, who along with Jesus are now very old, come to Jesus’ home. And Judas reveals that the little girl who came to Jesus was Satan, and he does need to go back to the cross and sacrifice himself in order to unite man and God.
EH: That’s really interesting as a last temptation, and there are two ways of looking at it. There’s the more Catholic way, coping with the human side of Jesus. He’s on the cross and he is tempted with the idea that he could have lived a normal life with a family. He could escape the pain and sacrifice of his calling and have a real life. A family life, and a sex life.
PD: A full life with old age. Not die at the age of 33 in the worst way anyone could die.
EH: So he can do that or he can be the sacrifice. I think that’s really interesting, and I’m not offended by it because that could totally be something that happened to Jesus Christ.
PD: The idea is what comes between “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and “It is accomplished.”
EH: But there’s an alternate scenario which I connect to more. That is the idea that Jesus is all-powerful, and at any given moment he could snap his fingers and send angels to flatten Rome and all who oppose him.
PD: But that’s a Christ who knows he’s all-powerful. I don’t think this Jesus does. He’s worried that he may not be the Son of God and all of this is for nothing.
EH: I don‘t think that works, though, from my faith. He had to walk to Golgotha willingly, knowing he had the power to end it.
PD: Ah, but I find it more meaningful if he could harbor the doubt and surrendered himself as a massive leap of faith.
EH: Maybe, but I think he has to know this is the purpose. His death will work to redeem mankind. It can’t be blind. His entire life has built to this and he understands it. But it’s an interesting question, and I’m glad that the film deals with it. I just think it’s funny that the only part of the film I found intriguing from a theological or emotional perspective is the last twenty minutes.
PD: Well, how about we move on to the most important question: Is this a good movie?
In Part 3, Evan and Paul discuss all things artistic about The Last Temptation of Christ, including Schrader’s script, Scorsese’s directing, and the wisdom of casting Harvey Keitel as Judas.
Evan Hernandez is a writer and producer based in New York City. His play, A Great Light embarked on its first tour this past holiday season and his debut novel, Breaking the Skies, is set to be published in this year. For more information, find him on Twitter, @totallyberserk.