The Temptation of Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert has been providing thoughtful “looking back” reviews at the Chicago Sun Times. His latest focuses on 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ” and acknowledges a debt to Register film critic Steven D. Greydanus.

Ebert’s 20-year-old review was too concerned with theology, writes Ebert: “It must have driven Martin Scorsese crazy to read reviews of ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ in which critics appointed themselves arbiters of the manhood or godliness of Jesus Christ, and scarcely mentioned the direction, the writing, the acting, the images or Peter Gabriel’s harsh, mournful music.”

“Or perhaps,” he reconsiders, “Scorsese understood.” A theological point, after all, was at the heart of the movie.

“Perhaps it was inevitable that my review defended the film against charges of heresy,” writes Ebert. “Both Scorsese and I had attended Catholic schools and fell easily into the language of religion.”

Ebert credits Pauline Kael with the insight that the most creative American directors of the 1970s were raised Catholic (Kael lists Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman and Francis Ford Coppola, says Ebert. Not restricting ourselves to the 1970s, we could add lots more: Frank Capra, Elia Kazan, John Huston and even Alfred Hitchcock, for starters.)

Then Ebert surprisingly backs away from his earlier theological defense of the film.

“The film is indeed technically blasphemous,” he writes. “I have been persuaded of this by a thoughtful essay by Steven D. Greydanus of the National Catholic Register, a mainstream writer who simply and concisely explains why. I mention this only to argue that a film can be blasphemous, or anything else that the director desires, and we should only hope that it be as good as the filmmaker can make it, and convincing in its interior purpose. Certainly useful things can be said about Jesus Christ by presenting him in a non-orthodox way.”

He adds: “There is a long tradition of such revisionism, including the foolishness of The Da Vinci Code. The story by Kazantzakis, Scorsese and Schrader grapples with the central mystery of Jesus, that he was both God and man, and uses the freedom of fiction to explore the implications of such a paradox.”

Greydanus weighed in on Ebert’s argument in an e-mail.

“I’m gratified that Mr. Ebert found my essay thoughtful and persuasive, and I think his discussion of the film has much to commend it,” he began. But “I don’t think he is right to say, though, that Last Temptation uses ‘the freedom of fiction to explore the central mystery of Jesus.’ The film actually uses the freedom of fiction to explore the duality of human experience, with the Incarnation as a metaphor — as screenwriter Paul Shrader has acknowledged. To reinterpret Jesus in this purely human way is a kind of aesthetic deicide that Shrader himself describes as blasphemous.”

My essay,” continues Greydanus, “attempts to establish the extent to which the freedom of fiction can, and cannot, legitimately explore the implications of the Incarnation itself. Last Temptation is antithetical to this endeavor on any orthodox reading.”

— Tom Hoopes