Whenever a filmmaker decides to pursue the topic of Christianity for the purposes of making a compelling film, it's often met with strong controversy. This is likely because those who are strong in their faith have preconceived notions as to what is correct and what is incorrect in relation to their beliefs. As a result, any idea or opinion that may be in opposition of those preconceived ideas is often greeted with apprehension.
Legendary director Martin Scorsese had some experience with this mentality when he released his long-gestating passion (no pun intended) project The Last Temptation of Christ. Adapted for the screen from an equally controversial novel by author Nikos Kazantzakis, the book portrayed Jesus Christ in a more human context than many previous films. It brought forth the suggestion that Jesus Christ faced all of the same doubts, fears, and inner conflicts as the people for whom he died, and yet still lived a life free from sin. The consistently brilliant Willem Dafoe portrayed Christ in the film, and Scorsese regulars Harvey Keitel and Barbara Hershey portrayed Judas Iscariot and Mary Magdalene, respectively.
The performances in the film are, for the most part, very strong (with one exception being David Bowie as a rather stoic Pontius Pilate), and the technique and presentation of the film is astounding. However, this article is less about the presentation of the film, and is more about the ideas and concepts presented therein. While the film received strong critical acclaim (even securing another best director nomination for Scorsese), many religious organizations objected to the portrayal of Jesus in the film as a man with very human struggles. However, I would contest that many of the scenes that were looked upon as heretical may in fact present a more intriguing view of faith and Christian understanding.
One scene in particular that drew the ire of fundamentalists groups was a sequence where Satan comes to Christ while he is on the cross, and he presents Christ with a vision of what his life would be like if he did not perish on the cross. During the sequence, Jesus is shown marrying Mary Magdalene and producing children, and leading an average domestic life. I have always found the rejection of this concept to be quite peculiar. I myself possess a strong belief in the existence of God, and the sacrifice of his son for the sins of man. And if anything, many of the ideas in this film provide me with an even greater respect and admiration for the Passion of Christ. The text of the Holy Bible repeatedly informs the reader that Christ was 100% God, but he was also 100% man. In so many portrayals of Christ, it seems the emphasis on Jesus as God repeatedly overpowers the fact that he was also a man of flesh and blood.
Many cinematic portrayals of Jesus make it difficult to remember that he was tempted by the same sins that all men face. Scorsese succeeds in presenting Jesus as a man who constantly faced the temptation to turn away from his purpose as the Messiah, but ultimately never rejected it. It is hard for many people to believe that Jesus would have any longing to marry and produce children rather than be the savior of mankind; but in many ways, doesn't this make his sacrifice more meaningful and beautiful? I for one prefer the idea that Christ was tempted to forsake his purpose and live as one of us, with a normal domestic life, a normal occupation, and a normal family life. For me, it makes his sacrifice even more meaningful, for not only did he sacrifice his life, but he sacrificed the joys of a normal human existence as well.
Another element of the film that prompted much contempt was the portrayal of Judas as a more honorable character in the film. I will confess, this is a hard concept to come to terms with, but it also presents an interesting argument as well. If Jesus was meant and destined to perish on the Cross for our sins, was Judas not in some way an integral part in our ultimate salvation? If Judas did not betray Christ, would Christ have died for our sins? Or would we as people still be nothing more than filthy rags in the eyes of God, still unclean with sin that was never forgiven? And if God is indeed an omniscient, omnipotent entity, would that not suggest that it was already known and decided upon that Judas would be the catalyst to the Passion?
Overall, I believe Scorsese was attempting to create a film that sought to help us better understand the challenges that Jesus faced by making him a more human figure than any other film had attempted before or since. In doing so, he perhaps made one of the most accessible and fascinating portrayals of Christ that has ever been committed to film. The actors in the film do not speak in the cadence of the King James Bible, but instead speak in a modern style, which makes it much easier to relate to them, which only adds to the appeal. Many have argued that the film is wildly inaccurate, and provides a poor representation of the actual crucifixion. Those who make such decrees are missing the point of a film such as this; it is not meant to present a documented account of what actually occurred, but instead is attempting to present new ideas and concepts concerning a very familiar event in our history. If that was Scorsese's ultimate goal with this film (and I believe it was), he succeeded on a monumental level.