14 April 2005 | barnabyrudge
Offensive - no. Fantastic film-making - yes!
Has there ever been a more misunderstood film than Martin Scorcese's The Last Temptation Of Christ? Released amid great controversy and accused of being an offensive and unholy film, the truth of the matter is that it is a deeply reverent work which has the courage to ask challenging questions about the pressures and doubts Jesus must have experienced as the appointed Messiah. It also shows the violence of the times in graphic detail. If viewers consider it blasphemous to explore on film the immense burden of duty that Jesus bore through his life, then they are narrow-minded and ignorant. If people feel that to show the brutality and harshness of life in Roman times is tasteless and inappropriate, then they are guilty of glorifying difficult but factual truths. There is NOTHING offensive about this film. There is, however, much that is challenging.
Jesus (Willem Dafoe), an honest carpenter, saves Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey) from a stoning. Already dimly aware that he is destined to lead an extraordinary life, he soon finds himself being drawn into the role of a religious figurehead. But Jesus finds it hard to accept that he is a Messiah, and as his reputation and following grows he constantly questions if he is a strong enough man to handle the burden of being God's son. After isolating himself in the desert, where he experiences several hallucinations in which he is confronted by visual manifestations of good and evil, Jesus finally concludes that he IS the true son of God and whole-heartedly sets about imparting his love and wisdom to all who'll listen. Later betrayed to the disgruntled Romans by his friend Judas Iscariot (Harvey Keitel), Jesus is crucified. While on the cross, he imagines what his life would have turned out like if he had shied away from his duty as the Messiah and lived life like a mere mortal.
It is this final section of the film that has provoked the most vociferous outrage. The sequence shows Jesus as he slowly dies on the cross, dreaming of an alternative life in which he sins and copulates and hates like all normal people. Many people have criticised the film on the grounds that these scenes are blasphemous. Such claims are nonsense - the film is not saying that Jesus was a sinner, nor that he gave in to temptation of the flesh, nor still that he was a man filled with hate. The film is merely saying that, in such great pain and so close to death while still just a young man, he might - just maybe - have wondered if it was all worth it. At the end of the film, we see Jesus accept his role knowing that his death is the ultimate act of unselfish love, so the film actually is totally in agreement with what all Christians believe. If the film had come to the conclusion that Jesus's whole life was a waste, his death too, then maybe the detractors would've had cause to complain. But how can they possibly be offended by the film as it stands? For goodness sake, it's a film about absolute faith!!! In truth, The Last Temptation Of Christ is an excellent movie. Compellingly acted, beautifully shot on Moroccan locations, and full of telling ideas, it is a work of real depth and power. The accents are sometimes distracting and some of the dialogue occasionally betrays ill-suited modernisms, but apart from these minor drawbacks it is one of the most important and thought-provoking films ever made.