“Everything has two meanings,” thinks Jesus at one point in this film, confronted with two snakes. And that does complicate things. I picked The Last Temptation of Christ as a last-minute sub-in for this feature because I was still in the lapsed-Catholic mindset brought on by watching Midnight Mass. In that show,
Father Paul mistakes a monstrous, bat-winged, bloodthirsty creature for an angel sent by God, which seems like a real unforced error until he reminds us that every time a Biblical figure encounters an angel, the experience is described as terrifying.
This has always bothered me: God isn’t consistent. Who can blame Jesus, offered an escape from the cross, for believing the explanation that God was just testing him, and he’s passed? His tempter is even able to cite a previous example: God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, then, once it was clear Abraham was willing to do it, intervened and saved them. If Abraham, why not Jesus?
Mary asks her son if he’s sure the voices and pain he’s experiencing are sent by God and not Satan. No, he says, he’s not sure.
“If it’s the Devil, the Devil can be cast out,” says Mary.
“But what if it’s God? You can’t cast God out, can you?” says Jesus.
Shouldn’t it be easier to tell?
I know this movie was criticized for both its perceived disrespect toward Christianity, which I don’t agree with, and its artistic choices, which I kind of do. It’s a movie that tries to ground Jesus in humanity, and the unpretentious dialogue and accents don’t sit easily with the stylized, symbolic storytelling. The early sequence where Jesus overcomes his doubts about being chosen by God relies completely on some closeups of snakes with Mary Magdalene’s voice to convey his current agony. There’s also too much of decadent, orientalized brown and black people contrasted with white Jesus and his white followers.
The performances I did like. As played by Willem Dafoe, Jesus is Jesus but also a crazy person who thinks he’s Jesus. And I say that if Harvey Keitel had been Robert De Niro, the performance would have been almost identical and no one would have made fun of it.
- “Only an angel could do that, or a dog,” complains Judas of Jesus’s teaching to turn the other cheek.
- “Be careful. God isn’t alone out there.”
- John (I think… one of the fishermen, anyway) says that even if John the Baptist’s reported last words aren’t true, “the words are still important. Because people believe them.” I hate that…
- …and yet, the ending of the movie appears to reject this idea, because when Paul spreads the story and doctrine of Jesus with the insignificant difference, according to him, that in this version it isn’t true, the message fails and Israel falls completely to the Romans.
- Speaking of Paul: “You know, I’m glad I met you. Because now I can forget all about you.” Paul is sassy.