When Jesus speaks to us in the opening scenes of Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)”, He doesn’t speak about love or god. He speaks about pain and agony; the pain and agony of sharing a destiny with God. “…Then the pain starts…Claws slip underneath my skin and tear their way up,” He tells us in a wistful voice. That the path of god is strewn with adversities and challenges and commands a great deal of sacrifice is the central theme of “The Last Temptation of Christ”. Based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel, The Last Temptation dares to look beyond the simplistic view of Jesus the text books teach us. It painstakingly scripts a fictional portrait of Jesus that endeavours to throw light on His quest to conquer the temptations of the flesh; an allegorical quest which will free the spirit from the burden of the earthly virtues.
The Last temptation is not a gospel; it doesn’t instruct like the earlier movies. It tells the story of Jesus of Nazareth with a tempo and drama that matches a tell-tale Hollywood biopic. The asperity of the opening scenes prepares us for what will follow. As Peter Gabriel’s mournfully melodious music plays in the background, we are introduced to a gaunt carpenter. He laboriously strikes His hatchet against the cross He is making. As He turns away from the camera, we see scars of an angry whip on His back. He has a nail studded belt wound around His waist. “I make crosses for the Romans so that God will hate me and choose some else to be His messiah”, He informs us solemnly. He just wants to live a normal life like all men: work for a wage, have a family et al. He is not ready to answer God’s call, at least not yet. How Jesus rises above His own desires and takes up the mantle of God forms the rest of the intriguing plot.
The movie plays Jesus’ life as an allegory for the conflict between the flesh and the spirit that is fought in every man’s soul. Isn’t the freedom of the spirit from the drudgery of life, the most important part of spiritual growth? The movie succeeds in its driving its point effectively; thanks to the brilliant cast and crew. William Dafoe, now famous for his role of Green Goblin in the Spiderman series, plays Jesus with poignancy. He has the gift of being wistful and majestic at the same time. Harvey Keitel portrays a Judas which is at odds with the gospels. Here Judas is the confidant of Jesus; a friend, a companion and a man of great fortitude who is mentally stronger than the other apostles. Keitel’s strong performance ensures that this legacy defying Judas is convincing. Gabriel’s eclectic symphony fills the movie with a melancholic spirituality. Michael Ballhaus’ sweeping camera motions gives life to the deserts of morocco. All these complement the vision of director Martin Scorsese and his screen writer Paul Schrader brilliantly. Ever since Scorsese read the novel in the 1960s, he had been dreaming of adapting it to the silver screen. He was so obsessed with it, that it was widely joked that “Marty couldn’t resist his last temptation”.
Paul Schrader’s script dutifully adapts Kazantzikas’ novel except for little pruning. The novel (and subsequently the movie too) has fierce anti-church elements about it. Apart from reversing the role of Judas and showing the apostles as cowardly sycophants, it hinted that the church embellished the accounts of Jesus’ life to some extent. While it is difficult to substantiate such claims, it sadly alienated some sects of the people who otherwise would have been more receptive to this compelling interpretation of the Jesus’ life.
The most important question, of course, is how much of this revisionist interpretation is true. Historically/factually, none of this can be substantiated. So the question boils down to how much you agree with the movie. Kazantzakis and Scorsese suggest that we have to submit to God’s will without scepticism; just like Dafoe’s Jesus walked to the cross like a lamb when God summoned Him. If man were to follow God’s voice blindly why was he given the sixth sense? Shouldn’t God honour the intelligence that He bestowed upon us? Shouldn’t Jesus answer us why God wants us to follow His path? I couldn’t agree fully with Scorsese’s cerebrations; may be you too won’t. But you don’t have to. That is exactly the power of this movie. It forces you to rethink your interpretation of Jesus’ life. It allows you to reconnect with Jesus in a more personal way. An exalted Paul remarks in the final act of the movie, “My Jesus is much more powerful… much more important…” The movie also treats Jesus and the message His life encompasses like Paul. It creates its own interpretation and compels you to create your own.
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