The first time I saw the similarities between The Last Temptation of Christ and Black Narcissus when the men drag Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey) down a pathway of a small hill the same way the beggar-maid gets whipped by Angu Ayah. The earlier film tackles female sexuality and its barbaric repression in a non-Christian society. How else, I suppose, can one portray the non-Christian than to depict the pre-Christian. Sister Clogah is enduring a similar uphill climb in showing the non-Christians rationality the same way Jesus (Willem Dafoe) has.
As a Catholic child, I’ve played the game when I wear a blanket and hey, I’m one of the apostles, which is what I assume is the approach of most film renditions of that era. But in this film I didn’t see Palestine, I saw India. This is probably the most exotic depiction of the Biblical era I’ve seen so far without counting the disco ethos of Norman Jewison’s Jesus Christ Superstar. Herod and his harem in The Passion of the Christ is by nature very orgiastic, but I feel like this whole film is bejweled, and not just by looking at Magdalene. There’s the myth that Israel kept insular despite its many conquerors, but it’s as if Scorsese approached that culture with more interaction with the outside world. Just look at the money changers bustling as if Jerusalem was a port city, or the free love Hare Krishna predecessors being baptized by John or the cosmopolitan groups making up Magdalene’s customers or Jesus’ disciples.
The film doesn’t make up any consistent portrayal of Jesus’ state of mind, putting his opinions under a shroud, but instead showed us that He was once a soul within body. His eyes become large as Lazarus attack hugs him. He’s convulsing on the floor as he feels others’ crucifixion or making love to Magdalene. He tries to escape being by sacrificing himself yet thinks about escaping sacrifice to become physical again. I’m still confused, but then I suppose being the Son of God might have led Him to make some leaps of logic. I don’t even remember His crucifixion, despite the violence in showing the nails driving into Jesus’ palms, being portrayed as gruesome as the Mel Gibson propaganda piece. It was as if He was in the transcendental state, able to meet the Last Temptation and see and live an alternate scenario.
Scorsese’s Magdalene turns from being a disgruntled whore to Jesus’ pity girlfriend to dead housewife. It’s nice to pretend that the King of Spain is a direct descendant of the alleged holy couple, but the real Magdalene may not have been a whore at all and preached His word in Ephesus until she died. Of course, the new Testament are written by people from what was then a helplessly patriarchal culture, so we’ll never know if Jesus was John Stuart Mill or Ludwig Wittgenstein. And true, she wouldn’t have had to preach in Ephesus if Jesus himself stopped teaching, and that the Last Temptation turns Jesus into an equally domestic figure as the love of His life.
Why does Scorsese and other ‘revisionist’ biblical storytellers have to give Him ‘dimension’ and nuance through her? In other words why are women merely advice columns, frail consorts or femmes fatale, all passive under male perspectives and labels? The only feminist Scorsese film I remember is The Age of Innocence, although the female characters’ corrective agency can itself be subverted. Durn.