Last night I followed the Maundy Thursday service at church with the suitably sombre The Last Temptation of Christ. I considered it particularly relevant at the end of a Lent which seems to have lasted for several years now – for I am still very much off the booze, and at forty-five days (one to go) have made it through the period of Lent with only three slip-ups – two of them very minor (the feast of St Patrick and the feast of St Aylett) and the other at my M.A. graduation when I was persuaded by Jamie Hawkey that I was actually obliged to drink on account of it being clitoris sunday. Or something.
On the whole then, I feel I’ve not done badly, and certainly it’s all good material if Martin Scorsese decides to make a film about me (it would feature a scene showing forty days spent in a dessert with only a bottle of Kaliber for sustenance).
Martin Scorsese’s film about Jesus is also full of good material. Much lambasted at the time of its release either on the grounds that it was sacrilegious or that it was a bit ridiculous, I feel it has aged well (being neither). Yes, so Judas talks like Harvey Keitel – it works. Even the potentially ridiculous David Bowie puts in a fine turn as Pontius Pilate. (Random fact: due to a myth that Pilate was born in Scotland, Billy Connelly apparently tried to persuade Bowie to play the part with a Scottish accent. That would have been ridiculous.)
Attempting to portray Jesus dramatically is fraught with peril and has been achieved well only occasionally (Bach) and much more often horrifically (Andrew Lloyd Webber). Before yesterday, the most convincing portrayal I had seen of Christ on film was in The Miracle Maker, in which he is made of plasticene.
But Scorsese’s film manages a picture of the Messiah that is more rounded than any other I’ve seen – and more challenging – because it takes more risks in interpreting the character and motives of Christ (something the Gospel writers more often than not leave to the imagination). So we see a Jesus racked with indecision and uncertainty, terrified by his increasingly inevitable death and prey to guilt and temptation on all sides.
I can see exactly why it got a whole load of Christians hot under the collar on its release. Okay, so a lot of them were upset that Jesus has sex with Mary Magdalene, but that’s in a dream sequence and a more intelligent viewer would see that as an important part of the ultimate temptation the film tries to portray. No, more generally, it is simply an uncomfortably human portrayal of a figure we Christians spend much of our time deifying. It’s much easier to deal with a God who is distant and etherial; to be confronted with one who has the same fears and desires as us is strangely unsettling. It’s one thing to talk about Jesus as humble, but to see him physically humbled by the limitations of the human form makes him seem “ungodlike”. Yes yes, he washed his disciples feet, but we don’t want to see him terrified, we don’t want to see him doubtful – that’s not the sort of God we want at all.
Of course, neither was it the sort of God people were after at the time, and it was equally difficult for them to accept. Maybe the hardest thing to understand about Jesus – still – is his humanity.
For all the liberties it takes with scripture (and with received wisdom about the person of Christ), in Scorsese’s film we finally see a Jesus we can identify with. And that, I would argue, is the whole point.