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Jesus in the Mean Streets

The Last Temptation of Christ

a film directed by Martin Scorsese, screenplay by Paul Schrader

Superlatively bad as Nikos Kazantzakis was in book after book, no work of his attains quite the bad eminence of The Last Temptation of Christ (1955). Secure of its position, the book seems to boast, “Bottom this, if you can!” Some have blamed the English translator (1960), who is, at the least, a coconspirator in the absurd: “Magdalene buried her head in her breast to protect it.” But P.A. Bien did not make up the “guardian angel” who takes Christ off the cross before his death—a furry big fellow who wraps the sleeping Jesus in his green wings. During the day, in the bourgeois life to which this angel leads the half-crucified Jesus, the angel turns into a “Negro boy” who serves as Jesus’ slave. It does not help Kazantzakis that he took the Negro boy from the Athanasian Life of St. Antony, the great fountain of temptation imagery, since that source is expressly racist (the negritude expressing the real nature of the “angel,” Vita Antonii, 6).

In his film of Kazantzakis’s book, Martin Scorsese keeps the (apparent) rescue from the cross, but turns the angel into a Florentine youth from a Renaissance painting, the angel of some Annunciation, with level golden eyebrows and ringleted hair. It is better to trust the visual narrative in this movie than the dialogue, since the visual scenes are so often taken from the rich iconography of Christ’s life as envisioned by artists who came to their task with skills greater than those of Kazantzakis. When Jesus bumps in slow motion through the streets of Jerusalem, carrying the crossbeam of his instrument of execution, with grotesque mockers crowding up to him, pointing and leering, Scorsese is paying an homage to Bosch’s Bearing of the Cross in Ghent, as clearly as he referred to Buster Keaton’s Cops at the beginning and end of After Hours. When Jesus is laid out dying, we see him from the soles of his feet in exactly the pose and lighting and cloths of Mantegna’s Dead Christ in Milan.

But the heaviest influence, as one would expect, is from Giotto’s Arena Chapel in Padua—which was itself the Technicolor Cinerama wraparound of its time, teeming with realistic figures from everyday life. The debt is most obvious in the Lazarus scene, where some disciples wrestle with the rock at the entrance to the tomb while others muffle their noses from the odor, and Lazarus stands still, with half-dead eyes, in the slim wrappings of a mummy. The sidesaddle ride on the donkey into Jerusalem resembles Giotto’s scene, too—but not as much as the scene of Jesus’ arrest in the garden, where Roman cressets throw light on the dark olives. Pasolini found in his Gospel According to St. Matthew that one cannot tell the story of Jesus in complete disregard of the most powerful visual narrative of it that exists.1

Strangely enough, some Christians have objected to the film’s central donnée, that Jesus—who is fully human in Christian theology—could be tempted. It is true that what is normally called the temptation in the desert—though often treated as a baffled seduction scene (sometimes profoundly, as by Dostoevsky)—is more a reconnoitering operation, in which the devil tries to probe the mystery of Jesus. The form of the first two questions shows what the devil is up to: “If you are the Son of God….” Jesus baffles these attempts with rabbinical counter-probes. But there is one unquestionable temptation scene in all three synoptic Gospels, a scene that shows the human will of Jesus straining against the divine will, asking that the cup of suffering pass him by, saying that it is not his will to suffer. To emphasize the intensity of the conflict, the struggle of real choice, Luke’s Gospel presents Jesus as sweating blood. What might, in medicine, be called “spontaneous bleeding” comes precisely from his intense aversion to bleeding (non sua sponte), a fear so deep it becomes proleptic. For his own crazy reasons, Kazantzakis has chanced upon, as “the last temptation” of Jesus—the ultimate temptation, not to complete the passion on the cross—the one that is most securely grounded in scripture.

Some people, like Pat Buchanan—new to theology, but not to persecution—have decided “to drive the pornographer who produced it [the movie] back under the rock whence he came.”2 Not having been defiled by seeing the movie, he quotes from a script (the reading of which did not, for some reason, defile him). Mr. Buchanan finds it particularly offensive that Jesus should say, “Lucifer is inside of me.” Yet entirely orthodox authors have stressed the identification of Jesus not only with sinners but with sin itself, whose entire burden he took on himself. Indeed, Cardinal Newman thought it was less the foresight of physical pain—which Jesus shared with other martyrs—than the assumption of this load of sin, including all its shame and guilt, that tortured the blood from his body in the Garden of Olives:

There He knelt, motionless and still, while the vile and horrible fiend clad His spirit in a robe steeped in all that is hateful and heinous in human crime, which clung close round His heart, and filled His conscience and found its way into every sense and pore of His mind, and spread over Him a moral leprosy, till He almost felt Himself to be that which He never could be, and which His foe would fain have made Him. Oh, the horror, when He looked, and did not know Himself, and felt as a foul and loathsome sinner, from His vivid perception of that mass of corruption which poured over His head and ran down even to the skirts of His garments: Oh, the distraction, when He found His eyes, and hands, and feet, and lips and heart, as if the members of the Evil One, and not of God!…. Such heart-rending, revolting, detestable, maddening scenes; nay, the haggard faces, the convulsed lips, the flushed cheeks, the dark brows of the willing victims of rebellion, they are all before Him now; they are upon Him and in Him. 3

In short, he felt as if Lucifer were in him.

Other critics of the film, or of its script, have taken offense at the friendship between Jesus and Judas, and at Jesus’ insistence that Judas betray him in order to fulfill the divine plan (revealed to him by Isaiah in a vision). Paul Schrader has dispersed some of the murk around Judas; but the film does seem to misrepresent the role Judas plays in the Gospels. Yet that role is in itself mysterious, as reflected in Jesus’ imperative, “Do swiftly what you do” (John 13:27). Even more enigmatic is the incomplete sentence in Matthew (26:50), as Judas is about to kiss Jesus: “Friend [Hetaire, comrade], what you are here for….” Most modern translations supply an understood imperative here, too. “Do what you are here for,” though one might as well take the phrase to mean, “This is what you are here for.” Jesus seems complicitous in Judas’s sin, if not provoking it.

Indeed, there is an odd intimacy in the exchanges of the two men at the final supper and in the moment before Jesus’ arrest. Only these two know what is really happening. They seem to fence over the heads of the uncomprehending followers. Each knows he is the other’s doom. Both will soon be dead, hanging from a new Tree of Life and Tree of Death. Each wills his own death while causing the other’s. They have the eternal bond of the betrayer and the betrayed—and if Jesus is luring Judas to his damnation, he is the greater betrayer. It is this feeling that makes the priest in Shusaku Endo’s novel, Silence, feel tempted to believe that “Judas was no more than the unfortunate puppet for the glory of that drama which was the life and death of Christ.”4 Later, the Catholic writer Endo, in his Life of Jesus, argues that Jesus uses Judas to save Judas—that redemption is won for sinners, and the supreme prize is the supreme sinner.5

It is the orthodox teaching that Jesus was killed by human sin, every sin, those sins that flooded into Jesus’ consciousness in Cardinal Newman’s Garden of Olives scene. In that sense, every sinning Christian must accept responsibility for betraying Jesus, and Judas is merely our representative—far more so than Pilate or the Sanhedrin, or the disciples who did not know what they were doing. Our only hope to be saved is that of Judas, by the inversions of the cross, which make the death-dealer a life-receiver.

So, at least, Endo argues, after pondering Scripture a little more, it is safe to guess, than Patrick Buchanan has. In Endo’s Silence, a Jesuit missionary knows that he will be betrayed by a weak Japanese convert, Kichijiro. He is infuriated with Kichijiro, yet frightened by him, forgiving him at times, trying to escape him at others. Over and over, he whispers to himself, “Do swiftly what you do,” trying to catch just the right sense in which Jesus said those words to Judas. Kichijiro, for his part, is ashamed of his own weakness, fascinated by the priest’s faith, infuriated by his mysterious ways, sorry for what he has done, feeling helpless to do otherwise. A sense of the sacred and the urge to deny it, even to defile it, go hand in hand in the convert’s thoughts as the priest tries to read them. Belief and betrayal are interwoven in the fearful fellowship that grows between them. It is amazing how often Scorsese’s film has been called blasphemous, since blasphemy is impossible without belief. Try, very hard, to think blasphemous thoughts about Demeter. As Chesterton observed, it is wasted effort. For some sins, a glimpse of the divine is a prerequisite.

The climax of Endo’s novel comes when the priest, having undergone his own tortures, finds he cannot let innocent Christians be tortured anymore. To save them, he agrees to tread on the icon of Jesus—and only when he does that can he hear in his head exactly how Christ said, “Do swiftly what you do.” The priest, so often betrayed, has become a Judas himself, and closer than he has ever been to Jesus.

It cannot be said that Schrader’s Judas has the depth of meaning that Endo’s does. But Schrader and Scorsese are obviously asking some of the same questions. It is only a religious sensibility that would ask such questions, as we see from the script Carl Dreyer wrote for the film he hoped to do called Jesus. Dreyer’s Judas also acts in instinctive accord with Jesus, even telling the priests he conspires with: “Whatever I do I know it will be for his glory, for I believe in him: I believe he is the Son of God; that God is in Him and that God has given Him power to bring eternal life to all those who believe in Him.” When Jesus tells Judas to do his work swiftly, Dreyer gives these screen directions: “Struck with astonishment, Judas looks at Jesus. He realizes that Jesus has seen into his heart and knows what he plans. There is no hint of disapproval in Jesus’s eyes and no tone of reproach in his voice.” The betraying kiss was to have been filmed this way:

Then Jesus catches sight of Judas, standing in a glade in the moonlight. The appearance of Judas is something Jesus has been waiting for, an answer from God. And He gives up all thought of fleeing. Judas, having seen Jesus, approaches Him quietly, kisses Him cordially, with great sincerity. He has now steeled himself with the thought that he is an instrument in God’s hands. Jesus has somewhat the same thought. Nothing will come to pass unless it is God’s will. 6

Dreyer, who made one of the greatest religious films in existence, The Passion of Joan of Arc, was clearly working at a level quite different from Cecil B. DeMille’s. I think he would not have been shocked by Scorsese’s work, though he would surely have argued with it respectfully.

Schrader’s dialogue has been ridiculed, and it is certainly undignified, not only by the standards of Bible-epic stiltedness, but of ordinary movie talk. It is in fact the kind of talk one hears on the mean streets of earlier Schrader-Scorsese collaborations. But where would Jesus be found except in the mean streets? In the Gospels, he is accused of consorting with whores and collaborators, with the ritually unclean and outcast. The Christian view has always been that God descended not into the Nietzschean Superman that Kazantzakis would make of Jesus, but into the broken, hopeless, “worthless” lives of ordinary people. There was no point in God’s coming so far as to touch the topmost of humanity and not taking the short trip further down into its dregs, especially since the topmost and the dregs intermingle so inexplicably.7 That is what the Magdalene figure was always meant to represent, the woman who loved much, to whom much was forgiven, the pleasure-giver who goes into the desert and, in Christian legend, founds the ascetic tradition.

As originally shot, Scorsese’s film would have begun with the young Jesus breaking off his marriage to Magdalene because inner voices call him toward the desert—a decision that forces the dishonored Magdalene into prostitution. That sequence would have made it clearer why Jesus asks her for forgiveness in the film. Jesus feels an inner compulsion to reach others by not being like them, but this exacts a cost in the lives of those he touches. He is apologetic for what he must do to them. The call to love is a cruel call for self-denial. The hesitancy with which Jesus inflicts divine demands on others makes Buchanan, who likes his saviors in the imperial mode, call this Jesus “a wimp.” Sometimes, it is true, one feels that the Travis Bickle of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver might blow this Jesus away with a stare. Yet Scorsese’s theme is that Jesus is just what Travis Bickle is looking for, and vice versa. The movie is not best compared with biblical extravaganzas, but with other stories of divine strength in weakness like Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest or John Ford’s The Fugitive.

As for the famous “last temptation” that takes Jesus in fantasy from the cross, he is tempted to become ordinary, l’homme moyen sensuel. The sex scenes so talked about are mild and domestic, watched over by the innocent-looking “angel of the everyday,” who casually blesses a casual infidelity. Kazantzakis presents this as a betrayal of Jesus’ possibilities, since he wants his hero to be unfettered, his own man, a free spirit, even at the cost of living and dying in outrageous terms. Is that all Scorsese makes of Jesus? Clearly not. For one thing, Scorsese puts back into the story a number of literal miracles Kazantzakis removed (while mercifully sparing us figures from Kazantzakis’s own pseudo-Blakean mythology). Thus the ear of the servant Malchus is miraculously restored in the garden—the camera lingers on Judas’s face while he witnesses the event. Most important, the raising of Lazarus is graphically depicted. In the book, the raising is a rumor, and the “Lazarus” who appears to people later is a wraith, who does not bleed when stabbed. In the film, Jesus struggles at the door of death, his arm pulling at the dead weight that seems to draw him into the pit. This is appropriate if we accept the view of modern scholars that John’s Gospel deliberately presents the Lazarus scene as the direct cause of Jesus’ death, the ultimate upsetting of the world’s deathly dispensation, the one challenge that cannot be permitted.8

Scorsese’s raised Lazarus is killed by Saul of Tarsus (and he sheds real blood). Later, in the fantasy sequence that presents Jesus as an obscure and aged carpenter, Jesus meets the despicable St. Paul of Kazantzakis, a man who distorts the truth to peddle snake-oil religion. This is the unbeliever’s version of the Gospels, and the fantasy sequence offers this as a possible interpretation of the story. But when Jesus rejects the fantasy and returns to the cross, the film closes with lamentation sounds from the Lazarus scene followed by the ringing of Easter bells behind the light show leading into the credits. The mystery of the Resurrection—whatever that is—is suggested more powerfully than in Pasolini’s Giottoesque literal presentation of the opened tomb. Pasolini’s narrative is protected by the conceit of naively literal dependence on every word of a text. Scorsese has tried to rethink the transcendence of suffering in a far more powerful set of film images. The result is not an entire success by any means—there are all those remains of undigested Kazantzakis littering the script. But if Dreyer’s Jesus had been filmed, I believe Scorsese’s would be the only other life of Jesus to compete with it. The rest are not even in the running.

  1. 1

    Pasolini’s many debts are clearest in the massacre of the innocents, with its decapitated children, in the Giottoesque helmets he gives the Romans, and in the sleeping soldiers’ posture at the Resurrection. Scorsese has said he tried to re-imagine the story independently, but Paul Schrader told me he spent years sending the director pictures of Jesus from museums he visited around the world—including Mantegna’s Dead Christ. (Those who are offended by glimpses of public hair in the authentically grisly crucifixion scene of the movie can find plenty of nudity and pubic hair in the Arena Chapel’s Last Judgment—one prostitute there is hanging upside down from a hook piercing her labia.)

  2. 2

    The New York Post (August 13, 1988).

  3. 3

    Mental Sufferings of Our Lord in His Passion,” Discourses to Mixed Congregations (1849). This Lenten sermon, remarkable for its insights into various forms of suffering, was preached in Birmingham during the cholera plague of 1849, the fear of which it refers to when discussing the fears of Jesus. As such, the sermon ranks with other works of Christian art created during or after catastrophes that tried man’s faith. Newman, asked to send a priest of his order to the plague center at Bilston, went himself, despite the pleas of his followers that he was indispensable in Birmingham. It is reasonable to assume that it was through his own fear, his sensitivity to the fears of others, and the pitiable nature of the confessions he was hearing in such a time of panic, that he was able to interpret the fears of Jesus in the garden and the temptation to turn away from his ordeal. (Meriol Trevor, Newman: The Pillar of the Cloud, Macmillan, 1962, pp. 498–502).

  4. 4

    Shusaku Endo, Silence (Taplinger, 1980), p. 116.

  5. 5

    For Endo’s Catholic fiction, see my “Embers of Guilt,” The New York Review (February 19, 1981).

  6. 6

    Carl Theodore Dreyer’s Jesus (Delta, 1971), pp. 253, 261, 272. Another film treatment of Judas as a loving betrayer, The Kiss of Judas, by Paolo Benvenuti, has just been shown at the Venice Film Festival (The New York Times, September 8, 1988).

  7. 7

    The existence of the sinner in the ordinary man is the theme of Endo’s most recently translated book, Scandal (Dodd, Mead, 1988), which presents his own life as a façade for sinful yearnings. As Peter Brown says of St. Antony’s temptations: “To ‘be tried by demons’ meant passing through a stage in the growth of awareness of the lower frontiers of the personality. The demons stood not merely for all that was hostile to man; the demons summed up all that was anomalous and incomplete in man” (The Making of Late Antiquity, Harvard University Press, 1978, p. 90).

  8. 8

    Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I–XII (Doubleday, 1966), pp. 427–430.

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