Every year, around Holy Week, I watch without fail a film that is still officially banned from screening in the Philippines -- Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ , based on the searing and very controversial novel by the Greek writer Nikolas Kazantzakis. What I have always found ironic about the controversies surrounding both texts is that the protests -- always rabid -- seem to come from the camp of fundamentalist Christians who find in Last Temptation the ultimate blasphemy with regards Christianity. (And often they sharpen their knives without even bothering to see the film or read the book. They have only heard about some salacious details -- for example, that the texts show Jesus abandoning the cross and marrying Mary Magdalene, and having a family with her. Sacrilege! But if only they got the point of that pointed deviation from the Gospel.)
And I have always thought that these texts are in themselves the most Christian of all secular attempts to understand God, and every year when I see this film I am reminded again and again about the singular beauty of my faith: that there was Christ who is God made flesh and born in this world; and that there was His bloody sacrifice on the cross on our behalf, "to wash away our sins," as the Bible says.
But we, in all our unquestioning wallowing of dogma, always forget the ultimate dilemma of the Christ: he was part God, part man. The film and the book make us imagine Jesus treading that fine line of his dual nature: he is free from sin -- but that does not mean he is free from all the temptations humans face; he knows he is called to make that final sacrifice -- but why him? why that kind of pain? and for these people? The film's epigraph, taken from Kazantzakis himself, goes: "The dual substance of Christ, the yearning, so human, so superhuman, of man to attain God... has always been a deep inscrutable mystery to me. My principle anguish and source of all my joys and sorrows from my youth onward has been the incessant, merciless battle between the spirit and the flesh... and my soul is the arena where these two armies have clashed and met."
In the end, on the cross, where the clip above takes us, Jesus is confronted by an ethereal child who calls herself his "guardian angel." This is in fact Satan giving him his final temptation -- to give up the cross, to give up being the Messiah, and to live from henceforth a comfortable life, perhaps with Mary Magdalene, perhaps with family. The child knows how to tempt: that soothing, knowing voice, invoking even Scripture -- it knows the thwarted sacrifice of Abraham, for example; it knows how to coat logic and sentimentality into temptation. The child shows Jesus the kind of life he could have, if he gives up the cross. He is tempted. He is, after all, half-human.
What we don't see in this clip is Jesus' final response: he says "no" to the final temptation, denounces the child as Satan in disguise -- and brings to accomplishment God's mission for him on earth: to die for our sins to give us eternal grace.
What a beautiful message that is, and also something that exquisitely paints for us the agony of the Christ's dual nature. Only the truest Christian, if I may say so, can appreciate something like Last Temptation. And learn from it.