Page 17


1957, weeks before his death, published his novel about the life of Jesus two years earlier. In a prologue, the author, best known for Zorba the Greek, explains: “This book was written because I wanted to offer a supreme model to the man who struggles; I wanted to show him that he must not fear pain, temptation, or death because all three can be conquered, all three have been conquered.” For his pains, Kazantzakis was . almost excommunicated from the Greek Orthodox Church, and his novel was placed on the Vatican Index of Prohibited Books. “My principal anguish and the source of all my joys and sorrows from my youth onward,” wrote Kazantzakis, “has been the incessant, merciless battle between the spirit and the flesh.” He found its consummate representation in the Christian mystery of Incarnation God as human, divinity corporeal, the supernaturai mundane. The Jesus whom Kazantzakis portrays is merely “son of Mary,” a worried mother who declares: “I want my son to be a man like everyone else, nothing more, nothing less. . . . Let him marry a nice young girl from a respectable home with a dowry; let him be a liberal provider, have children, and then we’ll all go out together every Saturday to the promenade grandma, children, and grandchildren so that everyone can admire us.” Some ministers cannot admire a character’s belief that: “God is found not in monasteries but in the homes of men.” In the final chapters, Jesus, in agony on the cross, has dreams less lascivious than they are banal. Like Moses and Jonah before him, he is tempted by the fantasy of evading a sacred destiny. How much easier, he muses, would it have been to take Mary Magdalene as wife and lead an unexceptional life revolving around a family and a job. Yet Jesus remembers where he is and, rejecting the devil’s last, most insidious temptation, expires in glory. ARIANISM emphasis on Jesus as a human being was declared a heresy by the first Council of Nicaea in the fourth century. Heretics die, sometimes at the stake, but honest doubt and earnest struggle persist. So, too, do inquisitors, and strong pressures were brought to keep all prints of The Last Temptation of Christ on the rack. Scenarist Paul Schrader \(Blue Collar, Hard Core, is not the first author to wonder how the Father logically could have created a Son who is as divine and eternal as He. Man, quipped Voltaire, created God in his image, and the Man-God created by Kazantzakis is a tantalizing tension between body and soul, temporal and timeless, trite and celestial. So are we all. In “Dear Judas,” Robinson Jeffers portrays a Jesus so pathologically obsessed with his illegitimate birth that he deliberately seeks martyrdom to justify his existence. Jesus Christ Superstar is a raucous, vernacular translation of Scriptures, and Joseph Heller’s God Knows transforms the sacred city of Jerusalem into vaudeville. Gerhart Hauptmann’s The Fool in Christ, Emanuel Quint and D. H. Lawrence’s The Man Who Died take theological dogma for a walk. Neither these nor even the scurrility of Mel Brooks’s The History of the World, Part One or Monty Python’s The Life of Brian has energized the Christian right in quite the way that The Last Temptation of Christ has. Scorsese’s movie represents the last temptation of power for a movement that is in disarray. Torn by dissension and devastated by financial and sexual scandals, fundamentalists know that, whatever the outcome in November, their influence in Washington will be diminished; Pat Robertson will not be as much as the Jesse Jackson of the Republican Party. If The Last Temptation of Christ did not exist, it would have been necessary to create such a paradigm of profanation, in order to galvanize the troops again and replenish ecclesiastical coffers. Their dramatic reactions themselves could make a film, or destroy one. Shortly before The Mission was released for national distribution in 1986, it was screened regionally by mixed groups of selected critics and clergymen. The story of two colonial Jesuits who defied Church orders by defending South American Indians against Portuguese slaughter, the movie was advertised as “not just a motion picture.” Study guides, describing The Mission as “one of the most powerful tools in the history of media to help you teach both evangelism and discipleship,” were distributed to religious leaders to enable them to incorporate the film into their ministries. The print that I previewed, in San Antonio, was accompanied by a Southern California minister dispatched by Warner Brothers. Before the screening began, he intoned a public benediction over the entire project. The Mission happens to be a very sophisticated film, both technically and in terms of the complex moral vision behind it. The Bible, The Robe, The Ten Commandments, The Greatest Story Ever Told, and countless other Hollywood devotions are not. The ludic spirit of modernism, which accepts and celebrates ambiguity, tension, and paradox, is alien to commercial cinema. The modernism of Kafka, Picasso, and Stravinsky rejects the rhetoric of reverence, and a movie that is unabashedly irreverent must expect a jihad by modernism’s sworn adversaries. The Last Temptation of Christ offers the enticement of secular humanism in neighborhood theaters. It remains to be seen how many neighborhoods will be invaded. The fundamentalist Christian lobby has failed in getting the movie embargoed in large, diverse cities like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston. But pastoral fulminations against the film will be most effective in smaller communities, where exhibitors are more vulnerable to the pressures of a boycott. In San Antonio, for example, a local group that calls itself Advocates for Family Values has been formed specifically to do battle against The Last Temptation. One company, Santikos, operates more than 90 percent of the commercial theaters. Santikos is an easy target in a moralistic campaign, and its offices have reported a torrent of phone calls insisting that the Scorsese film not be shown. It is not exactly that the company capitulates to blackmail, but it is simply easier not to bring a film that creates too much of a public relations problem; fewer people tend to be obviously affronted by the absence of a movie than by its presence, and there are enough other products competing for limited screens anyway. Hail Mary, Jean-Luc Godard’s eccentric modernization of the story of the Virgin Mary, thus never came to this largely Catholic town where cinematic repertoire generally ventures boldly where everyone else has already trod. A retreaded Bambi, offensive only to the most rabid hunters, is currently playing. It is not likely to be replaced soon by The Last Temptation of Christ. The Rev. John C. Hagee is pastor to 9,600 members of the Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, but his flock expands into the millions through national televangelical broadcasts. Though he has not seen Scorsese’s movie, he has, he assured me, read a transcript, and he contends: “My objections to this film begin with the very first scene and end with the very last scene.” Hagee calls the adaptation “something that is very, very sensitive to every Christian in San Antonio.” Leaders of other denominations in the area are markedly less perturbed, and, though Hagee claims that “Christians in every community are up in arms about it,” clergy who had seen an advance print in New York averred that they were underwhelmed with outrage. Hagee warns that if Santikos brings The Last Temptation here, to River City, his people will initiate a boycott of every one of its theaters for the duration of the calendar year. In addition, if the movie exhibitor refuses to listen to reason, cautions Hagee, “We will have no alternative but to call for a boycott of Coca-Cola and Spencer Gift Shops.” Spencer is part of MCA, Universal’s parent corporation, and Coke, though owned by rival Columbia Pictures, is sold in local theaters. No one should be forced to see a film he or she expects to find repulsive. But opposition to The Last Temptation of Christ transcends avoidance into coercion. Because Hagee has not yet burned Kazantzakis’s books, I have read the novel for myself. I am eager to view the film that neither of us has yet seen. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 19