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Review: The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Premise: An adaptation of the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. This film is a fictional take on the life of Jesus (Willem DaFoe), imagining him as equally human and divine and struggling with the tension between the earthly desires of a man and the spiritual requirements of a deity.

What Works: There have been a lot of movies that tell the story of Jesus. In fact, Jesus is one of the most often dramatized characters in all of motion pictures. But despite the frequency of his portrayal, the way in which Jesus has been depicted generally falls between very narrow margins. Films like Jesus of Nazareth and The Greatest Story Ever Told envision the character as a serene or stoic figure who is not only without sin but is also beyond the possibility of sin, temptation, and even intemperance. These films emphasize the divinity of the character to the point of excluding or minimizing his humanity. This creates serious dramatic problems for these movies. The drama of a story is made possible by the prospect of failure but to have a main character who is all powerful, unflappable, and incorruptible automatically hobbles the dramatic possibilities of the story. Furthermore, audiences make an emotional investment in a narrative because of the humanity of the lead character and that humanity is inextricably linked to fallibility. Heroism does not require the absence of fear or self-doubt; just the opposite is true. Heroism is found in the commitment to right action and the conquest of obstacles, whether those obstructions come from outside forces or internal fears. The way Jesus is typically portrayed in the movies subverts those obstacles and does so to the detriment of the story. If temptation and even torture are nothing more than an inconvenience then the story is dull and the character’s achievement has no heroism. This highlights the primary achievement of The Last Temptation of Christ. By fictionalizing Jesus and breaking free from The Gospels and the clichés of Biblical filmmaking, director Martin Scorsese and his crew created a cinematic version of the character who the audience can identify with and who overcomes challenges in order to achieve a heroic state. As depicted in The Last Temptation, Jesus is both human and divine; he is able to perform miracles and recognizes a higher calling but he also experiences the uncertainty, doubt, and desires of a man. By envisioning Jesus this way the filmmakers of Last Temptation have created a bridge between manhood and godhood that is palatable to the audience and successfully reimagines a familiar character. That leads to another exceptional element of Last Temptation. A frequent failing of religious and historical stories is a tendency to dryly recount familiar anecdotes and so the movie becomes a collection of random scenes. The events of a narrative must logically follow one another and they ought to be thematically connected. Instead of recapitulating every familiar beat of the Jesus story, from the virgin birth to the resurrection, the filmmakers of Last Temptation dramatize the relevant events of the Gospels and fabricate entirely new ones so that the film leads smoothly to its conclusion. The picture is also distinguished in its production style. With the exception of offbeat pictures like Godspell or non-Hollywood features like The Gospel According to St. Matthew, most motion pictures about Jesus come across pretentious and sterile. The settings of these pictures frequently look like a Hollywood studio version of the illustrations in a children’s Bible and the actors often ham up their performance, especially in the heyday of Hollywood’s Biblical epics in the 1950s and 60s. Last Temptation breaks from that convention. Its low budget generally works to the film’s advantage, limiting the scale and giving the events a reality and immediacy that many other religious films lack. The performances have a similar authenticity, especially Willem DaFoe as Jesus. DaFoe is among a small club of actors (which also includes Jim Caviezel’s performance in The Passion of the Christ) who have played Jesus with regard for his humanity and DaFoe version of Jesus is one of the most memorable incarnations of the character. Also notable are Barbra Hershey as Mary Magdalene and Harvey Keitel as Judas. Like DaFoe’s Jesus, Hershey’s Magdalene is a given a complexity not usually seen in other film versions and this picture deals with her sexuality in a sophisticated way. The reimagining of Judas is among Last Temptation’s most radical departures from the Gospels with Judas acting as Jesus’ confidant and conscience and the relationship between the two provides the film with some of its best dramatizations and meditations of the relationship between the body and the spirit. The Last Temptation is also distinguished by Peter Gabriel’s music score. The heavily percussive music energizes the film and its influence can be heard in many religious and historical films made since.

What Doesn’t: It is known that The Last Temptation of Christ was made under great duress and with a very small production budget. Although the limitations of the picture often work to its benefit, they do become apparent in some of the costumes, sets, and cinematography. Some of the sequences in the picture are filmed almost entirely in master shots and lack necessary coverage and the imagery suffers from color timing problems. Last Temptation also has problems in its pacing and consistency. The first third of the picture is quite good but when Jesus starts his ministry the film retreads a lot of familiar Biblical scenarios and the arrangement of some of those sequences is off, namely the wedding sequence which seems like it should have occurred several scenes earlier. In the titular moment of The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus is offered the chance to abandon his sacrifice on the cross and have a family. Several of the scenes in this portion of the movie are rushed through, especially the death of Magdalene and Jesus’ subsequent relationships. The filmmakers don’t convey the experience of fatherhood and so they don’t fully realize what it is Jesus gives up by dying on the cross, undercutting the film’s raison d’être. The Last Temptation of Christ is well known for its controversy and the picture has been charged as blasphemous and offensive to religious viewers. That may very well be the case; the film may be blasphemous under the technical definition of the term and viewers who come to The Last Temptation expecting a familiar recitation of the Jesus story may be shocked by the liberties taken here. However, that is another one of the extraordinary aspects of this picture. Last Temptation demonstrates that a film can be blasphemous and potentially offensive and simultaneously be an earnest, significant, and worthwhile piece of art. Ironically, The Last Temptation of Christ will be most meaningful to those who are familiar with the Biblical story since many of its manipulations and inventions play upon the themes, events, and ideas of the original text.

DVD extras: The Criterion Collection edition includes a commentary track, behind the scenes footage, interviews, and image galleries.

Bottom Line: The Last Temptation of Christ is a movie with a reputation for being shocking but for some viewers the most shocking thing about it may be how earnest it is in its intentions. The filmmakers do take liberties with religious tradition and theology but that is exactly what John Milton did when he wrote Paradise Lost, what Michelangelo did when he painted the Sistine Chapel, and what Thomas Jefferson did when he wrote The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. The liberties are taken for purposes beyond shock value and they shed new light on Jesus and his story. There is no denying that the movie is flawed but The Last Temptation of Christ is also one of the most interesting religious films ever made.

Episode: #487 (April 20, 2014)