In Retrospect – The Last Temptation Of Christ (1988)

The life of Christ has never been more passionately – or controversially – depicted on screen than in Martin Scorsese’s long-held labour of love.

One of Scorsese's most underseen and undervalued works, The Last Temptation Of Christ demands to be seen

One of Scorsese’s most underseen and undervalued works, The Last Temptation Of Christ demands to be seen

The crippling weight of guilt and the quest for redemption imprint themselves on many of Scorsese’s leading men; an acknowledged product of a devout Catholic upbringing that lapsed into the shadows as his love of cinema burned brighter.

Scorsese’s complex relationship with religion (he seriously considered taking the cloth to become a priest for a time) manifests itself in this deeply personal and spiritual adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel, whose doubting and fearful protagonist is the embodiment of the characters who have stumbled uncertainly through much of the director’s work.

Jesus (Willem Dafoe) goes into the desert in The Last Temptation Of Christ

Jesus (Willem Dafoe) goes into the desert in The Last Temptation Of Christ

On its release, The Last Temptation Of Christ was met with fire and brimstone in certain sections of the Christian faith and media, most notably by one extremist group who set fire to the Saint Michel theatre in Paris for showing the film, injuring more than a dozen people in the process.

Whether any of these people took the time to watch the film before passing judgement is hard to say (it is a long movie to be fair), but it’s perhaps not hard to see why some took so vehemently against it considering the subject matter.

should their views be based on heresay or downright ignorance

No doubt realising its potentially combustible nature, the film opens with a statement making clear that, rather than being drawn from the Gospels it is, like Kazantzakis’s book, a work divorced from the events depicted in the Bible; a parallel universe where the life of Christ follows a similar path before embarking on a final act that is entirely its own.

Judas (Harvey Keitel) and the disciples follow Jesus in The Last Temptation Of Christ

Judas (Harvey Keitel) and the disciples follow Jesus in The Last Temptation Of Christ

That final act is the eponymous last temptation when Jesus (Willem Dafoe) has a near-death vision of stepping down from the cross with the help of a figure claiming to be a guardian angel and leading the life of a normal man. Happiness (including consummating his relationship with Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey)) comes with a price, however, and it takes his most trusted follower Judas (Harvey Keitel, Brooklyn accent intact) to make him realise just what it is he has done.

Portrayals of Jesus almost overwhelmingly veer towards solemnity and reverence, which makes this depiction of Christ so fascinating. In the hands of Dafoe, this messiah is plagued with self-loathing, fear and doubt; a figure aware of his relationship with God but deeply unsure of whether he is up to the task or, indeed, what that task actually is.

Jesus (Willem Dafoe) faces his last temptation in The Last Temptation Of Christ

Jesus (Willem Dafoe) faces his last temptation in The Last Temptation Of Christ

A pointed image at the start of the film comes as Jesus builds a cross for someone’s crucifixion and stretches his arms out across the wooden block to ensure it is fit for purpose. We discover, shockingly, that he is a Roman collaborator whose confederacy is looked upon with disgust by the turbulent Judas.

He confesses to Judas at one point that he is “a liar, a hypocrite, I’m afraid of everything, I don’t ever tell the truth; I don’t have the courage” before adding that “I want to rebel against God but I’m afraid. You want to know who my God is? Fear”.

As others are drawn to his inherent divinity, Jesus starts to believe in his calling, but that underlying doubt remains, not least when he performs the miracle of resurrecting Lazarus from the dead only to be struck by an inner apprehension that registers on Dafoe’s expressive face.

The late David Bowie plays Pilate opposite Willem Dafoe's Jesus in The Last Temptation Of Christ

The late David Bowie plays Pilate opposite Willem Dafoe’s Jesus in The Last Temptation Of Christ

Scorsese’s camera is more restrained than usual, although some of Marty’s trademark visual flourishes are here, including zooms and the familiar gliding of the camera from a one-shot to a two-shot.

The rushed production schedule (a necessity due to the limited budget) actually works to the film’s advantage, with certain scenes having a rough and ready feel that suits both the landscape and the narrative; particularly the hippyish gathering that takes place around John the Baptist (Andre Gregory) which brings to mind chaotic images of Woodstock.

An elderly Jesus (Willem Dafoe) realises all is not as it appears to be in The Last Temptation Of Christ

An elderly Jesus (Willem Dafoe) realises all is not as it appears to be in The Last Temptation Of Christ

Alongside these moments, the film also takes the time to theologise about man’s place in this world and the nature of God. Jesus and John find themselves at loggerheads over whether the Almighty wishes his followers to be Old or New Testament, while a back and forth between a newly arrested Jesus and a blasé Pontius Pilate (David Bowie) doesn’t end well.

One of Scorsese’s most underseen and undervalued works, The Last Temptation Of Christ demands to be seen and remains an important chapter in the book of cinema’s treatment of religion.

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30 comments

  1. Anna (Film Grimoire) · March 3, 2016

    Great write-up. I’ve never seen this one and have always meant to. I’ll have to escalate it on the list!

    • Three Rows Back · April 10, 2016

      So sorry for the very late reply. I have been lame of late. Thank you very much for the kind words Anna. Hope you see it soon!

  2. ckckred · March 3, 2016

    Nice review. The Last Temptation is one of my favorites by Scorsese. I’m not sure if I’d say Temptation is underrated since it’s very highly respected by critics but I definitely think way more people should have seen this. I actually forgot that Bowie was in this picture, he has such a legendary presence.

    • Three Rows Back · April 10, 2016

      Yeah, RIP Mr Bowie, although this isn’t one of his best performances. Take you point about being underrated. Underseen is probably a better word. Apologies for the very late response by the way!

  3. le0pard13 · March 3, 2016

    Agreed. This really is a fantastic film by Scorsese marred only by religiousity of those who went out of their way to stifle artistic expression. Offered another take of Jesus that ultimately gave those with the faith to feel closer to it, if they could open their imagination. Wonderful piece, Mark.

    • Three Rows Back · April 10, 2016

      Thank you for the kind words my friend and so sorry for the late reply. I simply can’t understand why people of faith cannot accept different interpretations; this one remains very respectful and, if anything, affirms that faith. Don’t get it at all.

  4. The Telltale Mind · March 3, 2016

    Saw this many moons ago and remember it being decent. Great review!

    • Three Rows Back · April 10, 2016

      Thank you very much! Very sorry for the late response by the way!

  5. Movie Quibble · March 4, 2016

    Solid read, as always. Had a good old laugh at ‘Brooklyn accent intact’ – I had completely forgotten about Harvey Kietel’s ginger New Yorker Judas.

    This is my least favourite of all the Scorsese films I’ve watched. Not that it was bad; I’m an atheist but was raised Catholic, and I seem to have an aversion to these Biblical movies which will probably never go away.

    • Three Rows Back · March 4, 2016

      Yeah, Keitel doesn’t even bother trying to change his accent which is amusing. This film does stand out among the gangster dramas for sure, although as my review suggests it actually shares something in common.

  6. Tom · March 4, 2016

    I should be. . . tempted. . . to sit down and watch this but this kind of seems strange to me. Although if there were anyone who could sell me on an alternate interpretation of Biblical events it would be Willem Dafoe and Martin Scorsese. This definitely sounds interesting to say the least. Nice one !

    • Three Rows Back · March 4, 2016

      Give it a go mate. I’m not religious, but I like watching religious movies that have something to say beyond ‘Jesus was amazing wasn’t he?’ etc. This is one of those.

      • Tom · March 4, 2016

        . . . . . but Jesus *was* amazing.

  7. Jordan Dodd · March 10, 2016

    Nice writing mate. I’m not sure why the hell I haven’t seen this yet but you sure have me wanting to buy it now – I saw it on special just today on BR. Damnit I shoulda snapped it up!

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  9. Mark Walker · March 20, 2016

    Nice one buddy. I actually got my hands in this a couple of months ago so I can give it a rewatch. It’s been about 10 years since I’ve seen but I was always very impressed with this entry in Scorsese’s cannon. A hugely underappreciated work. I can only hope that my rewatch serves me well.

    • Three Rows Back · April 1, 2016

      It had been about 10 or so years since I last watched it and the film really stood up. I’m not sure who else could have made this film what it needed to be to be honest.

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  11. vinnieh · April 3, 2016

    Interesting review, I’ve read about how controversial this movie was upon release.

    • Three Rows Back · April 10, 2016

      Thank you buddy! Have you not seen it? If so, I’d urge you to catch it at some point.

      • vinnieh · April 10, 2016

        I haven’t seen it but it looks very good.

      • Three Rows Back · April 10, 2016

        Yeah, it is. Hope you get to catch it sooner rather than later buddy.

      • vinnieh · April 10, 2016

        At the minutes I’m currently watching The X Files and catching up on Woody Allen. But I’ll be certain to make time for this movie.

      • Three Rows Back · April 10, 2016

        That’s a lot of viewing to catch up on!

      • vinnieh · April 10, 2016

        Indeed but it is so much fun too.

  12. Victor De Leon · April 10, 2016

    was lucky enough to catch this in Manhattan upon it’s release at an Odeon Theater, and there were protesters there, of course. I hold this film in very high regard (I even own it on laserdisc). only film about Jesus (along with the novel as well) that moved me so deeply and made me cry. the director’s commentary by MS is revelatory (as is Peter Gabriel’s score) and absolutely compelling. kudos on this retrospect post! very well done. had to share!

    • Three Rows Back · April 11, 2016

      You’re too kind Vic. Those are lovely comments to read; glad to read that it moved you so much.

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