I must admit that I cringed a few times while watching Martin Scorsese's 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ. But in the end I thought it was beautiful, emotional, and thought-provoking. The movie is not based upon the Gospels (as the disclaimer in the beginning says), but on the fictional novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. Both use Jesus as a metaphor for the struggle between the flesh and the spirit, which is where most of the controversy comes from.
The Last Temptation of Christ paints a different portrait of Jesus. As the film opens, Jesus (played brilliantly by Willem DaFoe) knows that God is calling him, but he's afraid to respond. He tries to spite God by making crosses for the Romans, but after a spiritual experience in a dessert commune, Jesus accepts his mission. From there the movie follows the traditional Gospel story--Jesus turns water into wine, raises Lazarus from the dead, heals the sick, etc--but there's still a hint of that struggle inside him. When he learns that he must be crucified, he begs Judas (Harvey Keitel) to betray him. Judas refuses at first, but eventually agrees*. So Jesus is arrested and crucified, but this is when the major controversy starts.
MAJOR SPOILER ALERT!!!
While on the cross, Jesus sees a little girl who says she is his guardian angel. She says that God does not want Jesus to die on the cross, but to live the life of a man. So she takes the nails out of his hands and feet, Jesus marries Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey), and they make sweet honeymoon love. She becomes pregnant, but dies without any explanation. Jesus then marries Lazarus' sister Mary, and they have a family. Jesus grows old, and on his death bed Judas visits him and calls him a traitor. Judas is heartbroken because Jesus begged Judas to betray him so he can bring salvation to the world, but instead he got off from the cross. Jesus also learns that the guardian angel is really Satan in disguise. In an emotional scene, Jesus begs God for forgiveness and says that he wants to be His son. We then see Jesus back on the cross. It was all just a dream. Finally at peace, Jesus smiles and says, "It is accomplished! It is accomplished." As he dies, there is a flash of colors (apparently the film was accidentally exposed) and the screen fades to white.
END OF SPOILER.
Technically using Jesus as a metaphor for man's internal struggle is blasphemous. Even though Jesus was both fully human and fully God (you do the math), the Bible says that Jesus never sinned. That's not the say, however, that Jesus wasn't tempted. Satan tempted Jesus in the dessert, and in the garden of Gethsemane Jesus asked God if there could be another way. So I'm sure that Jesus struggled, but he was still perfectly obedient to God.
Even though it's debatable how much the real life Jesus felt that inner struggle, I'm certainly no stranger to it. Like Jesus in the movie, I, too, have tried to push God away. I, too, have struggled with choosing between pleasing God and pleasing myself. And sometimes it is really hard to know the difference. Sometimes when I think I'm doing God's will, it turns out I'm not.
So in the end, The Last Temptation of Christ is one of my favorite movies not because of what it says about Christ, but because of what it says about myself.
*The so-called Gospel of Judas, which many Biblical scholars dismiss, makes similar claims. I wonder if Kazantzakis was familiar with this text.