According to a bumper sticker I encountered recently, “There is only one perfect man, and He died on the cross.” Martin Scorsese and Paul Schraeder wouldn’t necessarily beg to differ, but their 1988 adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s Gnostic gospel-inspired novel The Last Temptation of Christ does offer a compelling counter-narrative, predicated on the inherently flawed, unmistakably human qualities of our Lord and savior. Those familiar with the life of Christ vis-a-vis the canonical gospels, pushed through the sieve of a Sunday school education, will find much to chew on in this mystic, at times abstract depiction of Jesus’s journey to salvation.
Starring Willem Defoe as the Son of God, alongside Scorsese favorite Harvey Keitel as Judas Iscariot, Last Temptation initially struggled to find its footing among squarer accounts of the Greatest Story Ever Told. More than thirty years later, its imprimatur lives on: as a predecessor to Mel Gibson’s bloody, wide-release Passion play, as cultural anathema to countless Lifetime movies, and as a rich hint at the future trajectory of Scorsese’s philosophically-inclined late period output. In an oeuvre dominated by often unlikable protagonists of dubious moral bent, tackling the complex real-life of the historical Jesus now seems, in hindsight, like a natural subject for Scorsese and Schraeder’s customarily high-minded collaborations.
Defoe’s Christ is not yet a perfect man, but one caught in the center of a spiritual and political maelstrom: the carpenter of Judea earns His daily bread by building crosses for occupying Romans, standing idly by as His countrymen suffer and die at the hands of the state. It’s an insidious framing device: depicting Christ as a collaborator — an ur-Kapo — forced to witness His ultimate fate on the faces of others. Whether it is the psychic toll of this labor that pushes Jesus onto the side of Jewish rebels, or some deeply-held sense memory of divine conception, is almost beyond the point: what matters, ultimately, is the model put before us in Christ’s struggle. By choosing instead to depict the less benevolent, but infinitely more relatable, words and deeds of Christ the Man – with all the lust, doubt, and ennui found therein– Scorsese and Schraeder invite us to come to Jesus not as sinners seeking redemption, but as fellow travelers in the battle for spiritual freedom over worldly bondage.