Mary Magdalene Sexism and Feminism in Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ"

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The following paper centers on the figure of Mary Magdalene in the movie The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), interpreted by actress Barbara Hershey and directed by Martin Scorsese. The movie is based on the novel with the same title written in 1955 by Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis. The story does not follow the Bible, as explained in the disclaimer at the beginning of the movie: "This film is not based on the Gospels, but upon the fictional exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict." It generated much controversy among Christian conservative groups, who considered it blasphemous. The film depicts the life of Jesus (interpreted by Willem Dafoe) and explores Jesus’ struggles with his dual nature: flesh versus spirit, human versus divine. Jesus’ humanity is central to the movie as is his temptation to live an ordinary life and his plight to accept his divine role. Sexuality is, therefore, one of the main temptations Jesus faces when confronting his human nature, and Mary Magdalene is central to this theme. She is one of the main characters, alongside Jesus and Judas, and is presented as a reformed prostitute who becomes a faithful follower of Christ and, later on, Jesus’ wife.

To examine how Scorsese portrays Mary Magdalene, the first part of this paper goes back to the Gospels and analyzes this biblical character and the inaccurate historical myth that emerged at the beginning of Christianity, referred to as the pre-Vatican II tradition. Even though Mary Magdalene in the Gospels is presented as a faithful disciple and there are no references that she was a prostitute, this image started to shift during the times of Pope Gregory the Great (540-604), when the Church began to misrepresent her as a sinful woman. This depiction created a Mary Magdalene with a double nature, a dichotomy between sexuality, sin, and prostitution versus penitence, chastity, and devotion, which will persist in the Church tradition and popular culture for centuries. It will not be until the twentieth century with the post-Vatican II tradition that the figure of Mary Magdalene is officially restored by the Papacy, recognizing her as the “apostle of the Apostles.”

The second section of the paper centers on the Magdalene tradition in film, illustrating the most common traits, such as promiscuity, sexuality, beauty, and sin. Later, the paper examines the specific portrayal of Mary Magdalene in The Last Temptation of Christ, explaining the principal scenes in which she appears.

The core of the paper presents two different interpretations of Scorsese’s Mary Magdalene: first, the feminist critique, which argues that Scorsese created a sexist version of the biblical character, and second, the viewpoint that sees Scorsese as incorporating feminist elements around her. These opposite perspectives demonstrate a duality of sexism and feminism in the movie. Hence, this essay argues that this duality around Mary Magdalene in the film is in fact a necessary element to fulfill the plot of the movie, to explore Jesus’ humanity, and to help Jesus accept his redemptive role.

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Theology and Religious Studies