The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Written by Paul Schrader
Directed by Martin Scorsese
It’s absolutely fascinating to see two artists who have delivered masterpieces (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) so spectacularly bomb a film. I think it’s especially interesting because this was such a passion project for Martin Scorsese. He first read Niko Kazantzakis’s novel while filming Boxcar Bertha for Roger Corman in 1972. In turn, Scorsese gave the book to Schrader, and the two planned to make this as the follow-up to The King of Comedy. Right-wing fundamentalist Christian groups and Catholic morality organizations started letter writing to complain about the production, and Paramount pulled back.
The premise of the novel and film is to explore the human aspects of Jesus Christ’s existence. We meet Jesus (Willem Dafoe) in his early 30s as a carpenter in Nazareth tormented by his human desires and the ever-present voice of God in his mind pushing him towards his destiny as the Messiah. Judas (Harvey Keitel) is a member of the Hebrew resistance to the Roman Empire that has brutalized the people of Judea. He loathes Jesus for being the only carpenter to build crosses for the Romans to execute Jews.
Jesus also has feelings for Magdalene (Barbara Hershey), a prostitute in a nearby village. The man is visited by God in the form of a snake who awakens the godlike nature within him. Jesus goes about gathering disciples and performing miracles, struggling with his two natures: man & God, love & hate. When the story reaches the Crucifixion, Jesus is tempted one last time to come down off the cross and live as a man, which he does, only to learn why his sacrifice is so crucial to humanity.
The Last Temptation premise sounds perfect for a film: an exploration of the humanity & internal struggle of Christ. However, something is wrong with the execution. It doesn’t feel as confident as Scorsese’s other work, even The Color of Money. I could detect some struggle in his direction and even in the editing of Thelma Schoonmaker, one of the masters of the craft. I can’t think of another director more suited to approach this material than Scorsese for all the flaws. His films are informed by his Catholic upbringing, and he understands that inner moral struggle.
There have been defenders of the picture in recent years, with Roger Ebert having been one when it was initially released. I’ve read the apologists’ and supporters’ points of view, and they make good points, but I just feel emotionally disconnected when I watch the picture. I don’t see the grand vision that they do. I also disagree with the moral pearl clutchers that say the movie should be banned, protested theaters, and issued death threats to Scorsese and his creative partners. The film actually makes a pretty good argument in favor of Christianity and the sacrifice of Jesus. It’s also informative how these people complain that it’s revisionism when the entirety of their belief system is based on revisionist translations of Hebrew and Greek texts.
The film certainly is blasphemous as it scrapes away the saintly divinity of Jesus. He remains the son of God and the Messiah, but it’s easier to relate to him than in many other Gospels’ adaptations. I can remember when this film came out as the right-wing propaganda by parents inundated our home with couldn’t spew more about how morally corrupt the movie was. I’m pretty Rush Limbaugh gave his bullshit thoughts, and Focus on the Family lasciviously teased the idea that the film showed Jesus *gasp* having sex with a woman. Of course, they didn’t contextualize that this was in a temptation from Satan that Jesus ultimately renounces so he can fulfill the prophecy and die for humanity’s sins.
My complaints with the film are more about the jumpy editing and some of the performances. It’s not terrible, and Scorsese certainly has some fascinating moments and ideas presented. I just ultimately cannot mesh with the picture, maybe because I am not as devout or as tangled up in my religious upbringing as Scorsese surely is. He would make better films about religion & spirituality, Silence being the one that immediately leaped to mind as I was watching this. If you have been scared off from The Last Temptation, I would suggest giving it a watch. God isn’t going to strike you down with lightning, and I think it does have concepts that are worth thinking about.