Sunday, April 24, 2011

On watching Jesus: Appreciating 'Last Temptation'

"Easter films" don't have quite the categorical recognition and distinction as, say, Christmas films. Part of this is undoubtedly from how "Christmas" has a very bizarre secular manifestation in contemporary culture (it is, after all, a pretty capitalist holiday: why not make capitalist products to promote it?). But there is very much a vested concern with portraying Jesus's crucifixion and, in some texts, resurrection on film. This is a historical issue as much as a contemporary one, as Passion Plays are not anything new.

But today, I found myself compelled to watch Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ for the second time. I first saw it in 2008 and had kind of a revelatory reaction. I watched it late at night, in the dark, consumed by the very lyrical work Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus applied to Christ, along with Paul Schrader's incredibly complex adaptation of a pretty controversial (which seems like putting it lightly) book.

I think Scorsese's film has been horrifically misread. I don't think it's just a beautiful film, replete with the kind of eye-catching editing, atypical fusion of music and sequence and striking compositions that have made him one of America's best filmmakers. It takes the kind of psychological qualities he gives all his character studies and daringly applies them to Jesus Christ.  It's brilliant and stirring in a way quite unlike any other spiritual film I've ever seen. So this Easter, I thought it was worth talking about.

There is this conception of religious films as walking on a ridiculously thin line between art and pandering. I personally feel like most of them end up feeling incredibly condescending because they can't cross the line from respect for the material and the desire to please the particular religious group. They try to "move you" so consciously, so relentlessly, it all just feels like an exercise in simultaneous hyperbole and restraint (talk about a paradox).

Look at The Passion of the Christ. Mel Gibson so literalizes Jesus's crucifixion that the film is an absolute chore to watch. He wants you to watch Jesus bleed, watch his skin get ripped apart, watch him moan and fall in slow motion, all to invest you with a sense of deep (and I'd argue this comes from a predominantly Catholic ideology) guilt about his crucifixion, such that the film's resurrection coda acts can't redeem it. Gibson's camera is designed to promote not only Jesus but his suffering as a form of pleasure. It's a rather perverse film.

Elsewhere, David Ehrenstein has argued that Last Temptation is about understanding divinity as a process. The vitriolic public reaction to the film, and its enormous cultural controversy, comes from a complete rejection of attempting to negotiate Jesus as both human and divine. This is the point of Nikos Kazantzakis's book, and I think rather eloquently translated in Paul Schrader's screenplay. The act of watching The Last Temptation is force yourself to take part in a process, a debate, where Jesus himself must reconcile his inherent paradox: he alternately embraces, rejects, thinks ambivalently and accepts his role as Savior.

Scorsese, who almost entered the Italian Catholic priesthood, and Kazantzakis, who is Greek Orthodox, graft onto Jesus their own interpretation of faith and their own need to debate divinity in order to come to grips with it. Though distantly infused with the rhetoric and structure of the Gospels, they see Jesus's dual nature as a way to understand oneself.

I love The Last Temptation of Christ because it's one of the only interpretations of the Gospels I've seen that actually creates a space to think about the problems we Christians face in accepting faith. There is, at least for me, a lingering doubt about the crucifixion sacrifice. The film, in its many debates with Gospel figures about the nature of faith, belief, and communication with God, offers that faith must ultimately displace temptation, that the messages we receive may confuse us but are ultimately able to inspire us to a greater understanding.

Let me be more concrete. At the end of Last Temptation there is an infamous 30 minute dream sequence. An angel (who is later revealed as a manifestation of the devil) comes to Jesus on the cross, takes him down, and unites him with Mary Magdalene. They wed, make love, try to have a child, but she dies. Jesus ultimately creates a family with Lazarus's sister, and comes across St. Paul late in his life. Paul is preaching Jesus's resurrection, but Jesus confronts him to call him a liar. This sequence is incredibly complex, for on one hand it argues Paul is a liar who invented the resurrection to make Christianity "work." On the other, this is a dream scene. The point a lot of people miss is that this is still within the devil's temptation. This is a moment for Jesus to realize the resurrection and crucifixion are necessary to "create Christianity," even if he doesn't realize that until his "death bed," when he repents and is catapulted from his dream back to the cross.

As the Rolling Stones said, Jesus Christ has his moment of doubt and pain. But instead of letting him overcome that in the Garden, he continues to doubt until the crucifixion itself. Suspended in time, the Devil tries to coerce Jesus to play out his human life. Were he to "die" in the dream, he would die on the cross without having embraced his divinity.

Some have argued that the film radically undoes Jesus because it shows him as susceptible to the temptations and sins he was explicitly above. Again, I would say this acts as a metaphorical exploration of our own need to interpret where Jesus's humanity ends and divinity begins. The film creates the space for us to do that and ask questions we might otherwise feel very uncomfortable asking. It doesn't ruin our conception of faith; it enhances it.

The Last Temptation of Christ is about the negotiation of Jesus's humanity and divinity. In order to do that intellectually, Scorsese, Schrader et. al. intensify each element and show them constantly at war, reflecting how they might be at war in ourselves. Jesus rejects the devil's fantasy though, understanding the need to shift from his humanness to his divinity.

This isn't just a representation of the crucifixion. This is a full-blown argument about its importance. It's an intellectual reappropriation of Jesus's life and teachings. Pasolini, an atheist, filmed The Gospel According to St. Matthew as "plainly" as he could in order to highlight the humanity of the story. The Passion of the Christ tried to coerce spectators into feeling guilt about the sacrifice. I see Last Temptation somewhere in the middle.

Looking at Dafoe's representation of Jesus isn't meant to elevate him. In his very nuanced performance with a wide range of emotions and thoughts, Scorsese and Dafoe want us to identify our process of interpreting Jesus's divinity with his. This is not a blasphemous film. This is a film that awakens us to the complexity of faith.

It inspires me deeply, and it's high time it be redeemed in the mainstream.


Anonymous said...

Interesting column, Jimmy. Kazantzakis believed that the greatest temptation is, in fact, human happiness. He felt that there are two ways for anyone to proceed, spiritually. Most of us will take the easier way: we will embrace our humanity, procreate, find our joy in earthly things. But a few will go the more difficult route -- the hard and lonely ascension to God. To do this, we may have to forego human happiness. This is not only Jesus's path, but perhaps also the artists -- or, at least, the artist as Kazantzakis understood him.

Interesting stuff.

Anonymous said...

ps: this is Aunt Karen, if you couldn't tell!