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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.