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The Rebel Jesus: Reflecting on Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ

April 10, 2020

By John Corrado

Please note that this article contains major spoilers for the film The Last Temptation of Christ.

It’s Good Friday, a day designated by Christians to recognize Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross, and a day that is meant to serve as a time of quiet reflection before the more jubilant celebration of his resurrection on Easter Sunday. In honour of this day, I wanted to take a moment to reflect upon what I believe to be one of the greatest Biblical films ever made, and one that, when it was first released back in 1988, attracted almost insurmountable controversy and immense pushback from religious communities for the dramatic licences that it takes.

I am referring, of course, is Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, which was based on a novel of the same name by Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis and adapted for the screen by screenwriter Paul Schrader, who had previously written Taxi Driver and Raging Bull for Scorsese, and would go on to write Bringing Out the Dead for him a decade later. For the sake of full disclosure, at this point I should say that I was raised Catholic, (this is the first year that I won’t be attending an Easter service due to places of worship being closed to help stop the spread of COVID-19), so I will be writing about this film from a somewhat religious perspective.

The first thing we see on screen is a quote from Kazantzakis’s book, followed by a disclaimer clearly stating that “this film is not based upon the Gospels but upon this fictional exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict.” The film stars Willem Dafoe as Jesus Christ, in what remains one of the actor’s best performances, brilliantly portraying him as a sort of rebel son, only the father that he is rebelling against happens to be God. It’s a fascinating place to begin.

Dafoe’s Jesus didn’t ask to be born the Son of God, and is in a constant internal struggle between humanity and divinity. He is plagued by visions and hearing voices, being tempted by anger. It’s a portrayal that will be radical and jarring for some, and fascinating and deeply empathetic for others. I personally find it to be a very moving portrayal of Jesus Christ. When we first meet him in the film, he is working as a carpenter and building crosses for the Romans, which are used to kill Jewish dissidents.

He is betraying his own people in hopes that God will stop loving him and he will be absolved of his place as the Messiah. But God does not stop loving him, and through visions that allow him to see the face of God in all of creation, Dafoe’s Jesus takes pity on the world and realizes that love is the way, preaching this message and gaining followers. One of them is Judas Iscariot (Harvey Keitel), who at first is sent to kill Jesus for helping the Romans, but becomes a follower of his instead, with Jesus in the film eventually begging Judas to betray him on the night of the Last Supper so that he can fulfill the prophecy of dying on the cross.

The way that The Last Temptation of Christ portrays Jesus’s relationship with the prostitute Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey) was and still is one of the most controversial aspects of the film. When we first see her in the film, she spits in his face, protesting his complicity in the death of a Jewish man on one of the crosses he has built. A few scenes later, it is Jesus humbling himself before her, on his knees begging for forgiveness before setting out for a time of reflection in the desert, where he will be severely tested and emerge stronger as a result, after spending the day at the brothel waiting to see her.

It’s in the last act that the film diverges most dramatically from the documents of Christ’s life that are found in the New Testament. Jesus is dying on the cross, but then something remarkable happens. He is visited by a girl (Juliette Caton), who tells him he has suffered enough and that she is his guardian angel, sent by God to spare him from crucifixion and allow him to live out the rest of his life as a man. What follows is a sequence in which Jesus comes down from the cross, has a family, and grows old, living and dying as a mortal man. It’s during this sequence that we come to one of the most singularly provocative moments in the film; a sex scene between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

Is it a fantasy, a dream, or a chance, in dying, to see the life that could have been? We find out at the end when the angel is revealed to actually be Satan, cruelly tempting him one last time. The final scene takes us back to Jesus on the cross drawing his last breaths, where he has in fact been all along, giving way to a hypnotic sound and colour show that takes over the screen before the credits start scrolling. Why The Last Temptation of Christ was and still is such a challenging work for both followers of Christ and non-believers alike, is because it forces us to see Jesus in a different, more human light. This is a Jesus who suffers and struggles with his calling, the divine made human in the most literal way.

The very thing that made the film so controversial is also the very thing that makes it so profound. By showing how Jesus could have come down from the cross to live a normal life as a man, it makes his sacrifice of dying on the cross even greater. Through this fantasy sequence, which powerfully imagines how he was being tempted right up to the end, the film, in fact, shows why Jesus needed to die on the cross in order to save us. What we are witnessing is the full weight of the sacrifice that Jesus made. God so loved the world that he gave His only son, we are told, and His son so loved the world that he gave up his own chance at a mortal life in order to save it.

That Scorsese and Schrader have both directly returned to the overt religious themes of this film more recently in their careers, (Scorsese in 2016 with his film Silence, which plays almost like a meditative counterpart to this film, and Schrader in his brilliant, spiritually demanding 2018 masterwork First Reformed), shows how deeply theology is embedded into their works. This is not surprising. Scorsese was raised Catholic, Schrader a Calvinist, so both come from religious upbringings and were raised with Christian teachings that embed into us from an early age dramatic ideas of right and wrong, good versus evil, and virtue over vice. In short, these are beliefs rooted in resisting temptation.

As an artistic achievement, The Last Temptation of Christ is staggering. The dialogue exchanges are thought provoking, and the writing often profound. The performances, including memorable moments with Harry Dean Stanton as Paul the Apostle and David Bowie in a single scene appearance as Pontius Pilate, are involving. Shot in Morocco, the film’s landscapes are beautifully captured by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus. The musical contributions of Peter Gabriel are eclectic and stirring. Editor Thelma Schoonmaker paces the film in a way that allows for reflection while keeping us invested throughout the 163 minute running time.

The fact that the film only received a single Oscar nomination for Best Director is shocking but not surprising in hindsight. This is a challenging work, a film that radically shows and reimagines the humanity of Jesus Christ during his time on Earth. While not a direct adaptation of the Bible, the film works as a powerful parable. A big theme of the story is the various tests and, well, temptations that Jesus faced, with the greatest of them all being the temptation to flout his role as the Messiah and live a normal, human life instead, including engaging in pleasures of the flesh.

The first two hours of The Last Temptation of Christ make it, in my opinion, almost indisputably one of the greatest Biblical films ever made. The final forty minutes of the film, however, still the source of so much controversy, elevate it to the level of a masterpiece.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 11, 2020 4:32 pm

    I agree 100 percent! (And your review is written beautifully).
    I first saw the film when it came out in 1988. There were dozens of protesters outside one of the limited movie theaters it was shown in (in NJ, USA). I honestly feel that if people watched with an open mind, it would turn doubters into a believers. It’s by far my favorite biblical movies. You are correct in calling it a masterpiece; it truly is.

    Liked by 1 person

    • April 11, 2020 7:53 pm

      Thank you so much! It’s hard to do justice to a film like this when writing about it, so I really appreciate your kind words. I find it very interesting to hear about the protesters, and agree that more people need to watch this film with an open mind.


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