Published on October 23rd, 2013 | by Clint Davis

The Last Temptation of Christ [1988]

The Last Temptation of Christ [1988] Clint Davis

Summary: Scorsese's most beautiful film is also easily his most controversial. Theologians will have obvious problems with this fictionalized account of Jesus but taken as a piece of art, it's pure passion.


Truly Classic

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R  |  164 min.

Director: Martin Scorsese  |  Screenplay: Paul Schrader (from Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel)

Starring: Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Barbara Hershey

Studio: Cineplex Odeon Films  |  Distribution: Universal Pictures

Willem Dafoe’s Jesus stands with his disciples, including Harvey Keitel’s Judas (right).

“Didn’t they tell you? I’m the saint of blasphemy.”

You won’t find that line written in red anywhere in the New Testament, but it comes straight from the mouth of Jesus in Martin Scorsese’s art house classic The Last Temptation of Christ. America’s greatest living director reportedly spent more than ten years trying to get this film off the ground and when he finally did, he had made the most beautiful and controversial picture of his career.

Paul Schrader’s screenplay, like Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis’s equally-controversial 1953 novel, blends some familiar moments of the Gospels with more than its fair share of original dialogue from Jesus, his disciples and other major biblical players — this is where the ammunition to label this film blasphemous is derived from. However, Kazantzakis’s novel can be found in the fiction section of any library and meanwhile, the first slate you see in the opening of Scorsese’s film is a massive disclaimer reading, “This film is not based upon the Gospels but upon this fictional exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict.” This didn’t keep protestors from picketing theaters in 1988, upon the movie’s release.

Barbara Hershey, as Mary Magdalene, represented the film’s only award nod for acting.

I’ll tell you right now, I’m not going to write an entire essay about the ongoing political battle of religion as depicted by Hollywood, rather I’ll keep this review about the film itself and as a whole piece of work, which to me is a masterpiece.

Willem Dafoe, typically known for playing thoughtful tough guys, is hardly the first guy a casting director would think of to play the Son of Man, but fresh off a career-making turn in 1986’s Platoon, he proved to be a great choice. On the other hand, Scorsese regular Harvey Keitel was a bad call as Christ’s right-hand man Judas Iscariot, with his Brooklyn-accent intact. The rest of the cast is strong, mostly made of unknowns aside from Golden Globe-nominee Barbara Hershey, who plays Mary Magdalene, presented scathingly here as a prostitute with plenty of clients lining up beside her bed. Other standouts include Michael Been as John, Harry Dean Stanton as Saul/Paul and a frenetic Andre Gregory as John the Baptist.

The Last Temptation of Christ is a portrait of the human side of a person who is equal parts man and God. This film attempts to make Jesus more relatable than traditional accounts of his life, which is precisely where it gets into trouble with most Christians. The key to absorbing this, or any work of art, is to separate your own expectations going into it and instead experience it on its own terms, which can be hard to do when you’re dealing with the image of the Messiah. This is rocky ground for any artist to cover.

The loneliness of Jesus is presented throughout, here he sits in the desert for 40 days — but proves to not be alone.

When we meet Defoe’s Jesus, he’s working as a carpenter in Judea, making crucifixes for the Romans. He’s wracked by guilt for the tools of death he’s creating and highly unpopular among his fellow Jews as a result of it, of course being an outcast is something he deals with throughout the film. The character is also being driven mad by what he believes is the voice of God ringing in his head. He constantly beats himself up, physically and verbally, calling himself a sinner and liar — yet we never see instances of either. Eventually, Jesus accepts his role as the messenger of God’s word, picking up a group of followers and spreading a message that starts as love but later takes on more edge (literally).

This film is much less straightforward than a typical religious picture as Scorsese and Schrader employ a barrage of visual metaphors for the young man’s struggle with his divinity. Much like the parable Jesus tells a group of listeners in the film, the onscreen symbols are seeds that will either fall on rocks or drop into rich soil. The most prevalent of these symbols is an axe, which comes to represent violence. Perhaps my favorite sequence of The Last Temptation of Christ is when Jesus spends forty days alone in a desolate desert, attempting to connect with God. While fasting and depriving himself of water, Jesus is tempted by multiple incarnations of Satan — coming to him in obvious forms like a snake and a pillar of fire but also under the guise of traditionally positive entities like a beautiful lion and a tree.

Satan presents himself in many forms to Jesus in the film, always with the same goal.

A major theme of the film, as referenced in its title, is how Satan regularly appears with only one goal – to fool men into following him. At first, Jesus believes love is the only way God’s word can be spread and evil can truly be defeated but after John the Baptist is beheaded, he becomes less naive, taking up the axe and realizing people need something more intense to keep their attention. The film’s Jesus is constantly at odds with people, typically rubbing them the wrong way. In the first act, his manhood is repeatedly questioned by characters who are supposedly his friends. Both Judas and Mary Magdalene verbally insult him for not being man enough in their eyes — all the while, the character is down on himself for not being “God enough”.

A great line comes when Jesus is attempting to spread the gospel in his native Nazareth, where the people demand him to “Make a miracle, so we will believe!” Frustrated with their ignorance, Jesus replies, “I don’t need a miracle, God is the miracle.” In the third act, after effectively destroying the money changers’ booths inside a temple in Jerusalem that has been overrun with Roman idolatry, he questions the inhabitants who are trying to make money off of faith, “You think God belongs to you? He doesn’t.” These quotes may not be scripture, but again, taken in the film’s context they can be extremely powerful.

The axe becomes a dominant piece of symbolism in the film, here as Christ grows old.

Scorsese can be as brilliant as any storyteller in cinematic history and in pictures like this and 2012’s Hugo, he shows how beautiful his pictures can be when dealing with a theme he is passionate about. I would put The Last Temptation of Christ up there with any of his strongest films but there is certainly a danger when you’re blurring the lines between accepted religious fact and bonafide fiction.

For people who know the Bible, they will be able to easily distinguish between what came from scripture and what was thought up by Kazantzakis, Schrader and Scorsese; however, for those who are unfamiliar, the distinction is not so easy, and that’s why this is considered a dangerous movie. Imagining Jesus as a human being, complete with weaknesses and fallibilities isn’t something that Christians will be comfortable with but that’s the version of him depicted in this film.

The violence of Jesus’s death on the cross is not nearly as gratuitous as in Mel Gibson’s infamous rendition but still contains a fair amount of gore — it’s especially cringe-inducing when blood squirts as the nails are driven into the flesh. I felt Peter Gabriel’s score was a bit underwhelming, mostly serving as background with a distinctly middle eastern, percussion-heavy feel. Huge bonus points for former E-Streeter David Sancious playing the orchestra’s keyboards though!

Fans thinking a Scorsese flick about Jesus has to depict the savior as an ass-kicking, tough-talking gangster of love will be disappointed because this movie actually presents the most vulnerable and (dare I say) whiny version of Christ ever put on screen. The Last Temptation of Christ ultimately carries a strong message of love and while its basis in theology makes it a target for critics, the story asks some interesting questions about the difficult, selfless burden that was one man’s to carry. The Gospel according to Marty may not be mandatory viewing for most Christians but for fans of artistic cinema, this is the truth.

Check Out The Last Temptation of Christ on Amazon

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About the Author

Clint Davis is a Cincinnati, Ohio-based journalist who dropped out of film school to write news! Email him at TheClintDavis@gmail.com.

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