One of the most thoughtful and thought-provoking films ever conceived; acclaimed auteur Martin Scorsese’s most overlooked and, arguably, most powerful masterpiece; and one of the greatest movies ever made.
Yet, a quarter-Century on, it still causes controversy: closed-minded people – hiding behind the pretence of being devout – avoid the film literally like the plague, lest it touch them; shake their beliefs; contaminate their souls. Banned in several countries; shunned by the ignorant masses; protested against upon release – all by individuals who hadn’t even seen it!
Had they seen it, they might have found one of the most powerfully religious films ever made, and one of the most respectful; cutting to the heart of Faith and giving us arguably the greatest story about Christ that was never told.
It doesn’t seek to defile people’s beliefs; fracture their faith – on the contrary, it will likely reaffirm it, enriching anybody’s understanding of the Gospels.
Not only is the journey Christ takes in this film more human, but the sacrifice is more poignant than anything that comes across in any of the Bible stories about him; more powerful; more resonant; and infinitely more accessible.
Religious or non-religious – it doesn’t matter – you simply must see this movie.
But if almost 25 years of controversy and misconception is still putting you off then convincing you otherwise is going to be a hard task. Hopefully two decades of admiration and appreciation for this masterpiece will stand me in good stead.
The feeling begins. Very tender, very loving. Then the pain starts. Claws slip underneath the skin and tear their way up. Just before they reach my eyes... they dig in. And I remember.
First I fasted for three months. I even whipped myself before I went to sleep. At first it worked. Then the pain came back. And the voices. They call me by name.
Simple carpenter Jesus of Nazareth is having a crisis of faith. He hears voices in his head telling him that he is the Son of God, and, being a devout believer, he thinks that it is the Devil, telling him what cannot possibly be true, cursing him with sinful thoughts that simply cannot be forgiven. In an attempt to make amends, he punishes himself, crafting and carrying crosses; helping his very enemies – the hated Romans – to crucify his own kind. By denying the affection that he has for his childhood sweetheart, Mary Magdalene, he has condemned her to a life of sin: unwanted, unloved and unmarried she sells the only thing that she left: her body. And his closest friend, Judas, a rebel fighter in the uprising, despises Jesus’s inner turmoil and subsequent inaction.
When Judas is ordered to assassinate Jesus for collaborating with the Romans, Jesus finally gives in to his growing suspicions about being destined for more, and commits himself towards being a revolutionary, maybe even a prophet. Judas, always believing that his friend was actually the Messiah, belays his orders and decides to follow Jesus until he more fully understands the man’s supposed mission. And so Jesus travels the land, picking up disciples, delivering sermons, and healing the sick, all the while questioning his true purpose, and all the while tempted by the very human instincts within him.
“Just so there’s no mistake. I’ll go with you until I understand. But if you stray from the path, I’ll kill you.”
Author Nikos Kazantzakis, a Greek philosopher whose original 1951 novel, translated into English under the abbreviated title of “The Last Temptation”, caused its own furore with the Church, was himself of devout Greek Orthodox belief. Even from an early age, Kazantzakis was spiritually restless, dwelling on metaphysical and existential questions and even joining a monastery for 6 months to get closer to God. He would go on to write several acclaimed works, and his philosophical reflections were nearly rewarded with a Nobel Prize for literature – he reportedly lost out by just one vote to Albert Camus – despite the fact that he was anathematised by the Greek Orthodox Church, who, even after his death in 1957, refused to allow him a proper burial because of his writings.
What the Church failed to see was that only a truly insightful man of great Faith could write such an honest, cut-to-the-core thesis on Christ’s life; his inner conflict; and his great sacrifices. They failed to see that it took a deep understanding of the Scriptures, of religion itself, and of the true messages behind many of the Biblical stories, to be able to produce such a powerful examination of Faith. Had they afforded him, and his work, the time and respect that it truly deserved, they may not have been so quick to condemn and ban his book, and excommunicate him.
Director Martin Scorsese, himself a man of openly admitted great religious conflict, was born and raised Roman Catholic. At one stage he intended to be a Priest, before he found his calling in filmmaking instead. But his inner spiritual wrestling have always been evident, particularly in his films – from Harvey Keitel’s tortured protagonist in Mean Streets, to Robert De Niro’s very literally Raging Bull – but it was only with The Last Temptation of Christ that he was able to tackle the issue head-on. An indisputable labour of love, as far back as his childhood days Scorsese had envisioned making a film about the life of Jesus, and he optioned Kazantzakis’s novel in the late 70s, enlisting long-term collaborator Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) to write the screenplay.
“I’m a liar. A hypocrite. I’m afraid of everything. I never tell the truth. I don’t have the courage. When I see a woman, I blush and look away. But inside I have lust. For God, I smother the lust, and that satisfies my pride. But my pride destroys Magdalene. I never steal or fight, or kill... not because I don’t want to but because I’m afraid. I want to rebel against everything, everybody... against God!... but I’m afraid. If you look inside me you see fear, that’s all. Fear is my mother, my father, my God.”
The initial plans for a medium-budget film starring Aidan Quinn as Jesus, Harvey Keitel as Judas, Barbara Hershey as Magdalene and Sting as Pontius Pilate were soon scrapped amidst religious protests against its production and it took almost a decade to finally realise the project, which had now been partially recast, with its already-modest budget slashed in half.
Shot for $7 Million in just 58 days, The Last Temptation of Christ still endures as one of Scorsese’s greatest accomplishments. Indeed, one might argue that the very imposition of these restrictions gave birth to a minimalistic, innovative style which now defines the work of art.
You see, what both the author and director both wanted – even though they were a generation apart – was to examine the earthly life of Jesus as a human; struggling with the inner turmoil and temptations that the majority of people struggle with; resisting his true calling – to be crucified as the Son of God – quite simply because he wanted what was only natural for a human to want: a life, a wife, a family; to love and be loved. By juxtaposing this with their own personal religious conflicts; their own existential and metaphysical questions of Faith and spirituality, both Kazantzakis and Scorsese painted a picture of the Son of God as a man first and foremost, before he makes the choice to take a divine path.
Not only does this make the notion of Jesus instantly more accessible to all of mankind, but it also makes more sharp and poignant the life struggles and conflicts he went through – and the sacrifices that he made – in a way which was simply never a part of the Scriptures; never taught in Sunday School; and which therefore goes further towards emboldening us to face and fight our own personal battles.
Was Jesus born the Son of God? If so, what was he doing for the first three decades of his life before he took up his vocation? Why waste all that time, only to spend a couple of years preaching before you die? And why did Jesus have to die on the cross? Why did he have to die at all? Why did Judas betray him? If Judas hadn’t betrayed him, would Jesus’s purpose in life be complete? Was Judas part of The Grand Plan?
“You broke my heart. Sometimes I curse the day I ever met you! We held the world in our hands. Remember what you told me? You took me in your arms, do you remember? And you begged me, ‘Betray me, betray me, I have to be crucified...’”
The Last Temptation of Christ doesn’t seek to rewrite the Scriptures, but more explain them in a way which would lead to less doubt; which would make far more sense, all the while remaining true to the spirit of the stories we have heard, arguably even more so than their often literal interpretations.
Then, of course, there are the temptations themselves. Now many of the protests against the film were founded in and around the fact that it purportedly depicted Jesus having a relationship; a wife; a family. Understandably, these might make the precious Church furious. Had those who sought to condemn the film, actually watched it; actually seen it, and related it to the words in its very title, they may have realised that the film actually shows none of these things. It merely shows Jesus being tempted. Tempted by very natural human desires: to love and be loved; to have a family.
Without this temptation wouldn’t this great sacrifice he is supposed to have made for mankind be nothing more than an empty gesture? If his destiny was to be reunited with his Father, and his short time on the earth merely a prelude to that, what great sacrifice is it? He gave up nothing if he had nothing to give up. Both the writer of the original book, and Scorsese himself acting as director and using this as a medium through which to channel his own beliefs, clearly express their view that it’s not just Jesus’s righteousness that should define him, but indeed the human conflict within him juxtaposed with his steadfast following of ‘the chosen path’.
“You’re here to trick me.”
“Trick you? To love and care for a woman, to have a family? This is a trick? Why are you trying to save the world? Aren’t your own sins enough for you? What arrogance to think you can save the world! The world doesn’t have to be saved: save yourself.”
They theorise that, had Jesus succumbed to the temptations of man, he would have been just another benign prophet; preaching but not practising. But without the temptations, there would have been no threat; no moral quandary – Jesus would have been nothing more than the emasculated, asexual icon that he is most often visualised as. No, what they think pays more respect to Jesus’s life’s work, is a remembrance of his life as a human being plagued by very real temptations, but that in spite of these temptations, he still chose the path.
In attempting to dissect The Last Temptation of Christ, it is difficult enough to stick to the path yourself, and with all that’s been written so far, it would be easy to believe that this is a book; a film; a tale which never need be seen by anybody non-religious (of course, if that were the case, the great irony would be that it was condemned by the very people who were the target audience!).
Don’t be put off. This is as much an exploration of man’s inner conflict with religion as it is an exploration of Jesus’s inner conflict with being the Son of God. It’s as much about the principles that we live our lives by as the principles which religion imposes upon us. But where the Scriptures were written in such a distractingly antiquated way, the movie makes the underlying principles much more accessible and relevant; justice, forgiveness, charity, and, of course, love – it’s all in there, the message important however religious or non-religious you are.
Of course, beyond the message, we have the film itself, which is itself a technical masterpiece, the powerful story made great by Scorsese’s minimalist vision – still stamped with all his stylish trademark flourishes – enriched by a superior, Award-nominated score by Peter Gabriel, and driven by superbly-rendered characters brought to life with an array of familiar actors who are all on tremendous form.
“If I was a woodcutter, I’d cut. If I was a fire, I’d burn. But I’m a heart and I love. That’s the only thing I can do.”
Willem Dafoe (Platoon, To Live and Die in L.A.) puts in a career-high performance as Jesus himself, giving great depth to what could have easily been just another Christmas card portrayal of the spiritual icon and making you feel the inner turmoil and conflict torturing his soul. Barbara Hershey (Boxcar Bertha, Black Swan) puts in a daring performance in this controversial take on Magdalene, driven to prostitution in the absence of her one true love – Jesus. There are also plenty of other familiar faces making up the numbers, including Victor Argo (Taxi Driver, The King of New York) as the uncertain Peter, one of the disciples, Harry Dean Stanton (Alien, Two-Lane Blacktop) as the revolutionary-turned-prophet Saul/Paul, and David Bowie, giving an interesting turn as Pontius Pilate.
In my opinion, however, the true revelation is Harvey Keitel (Reservoir Dogs, Bugsy, Pulp Fiction). Born and raised in Brooklyn, he always felt like Robert De Niro’s less-successful acting cousin; his career defined by a series of great collaborations with Martin Scorsese and, later, Quentin Tarantino. Back on its release, Keitel’s performance in The Last Temptation of Christ was nominated for a razzie Award, with many assuming that he had just adopted his usual quintessentially New York attitude and intonation to depict the character of Judas – i.e. that he’d just transplanted over his character from Mean Streets – but, on reflection, his is a far more nuanced performance than you might expect. Of course it helps that Judas has been made such an integral component in this particular interpretation; his character here a fighter, a revolutionary, and a great friend to Jesus: his closest friend and strongest disciple. Through Judas, however, we also get to see things from an audience point-of-view; hearing the questions asked that we might ask; the frustration that we might have with the words of Jesus and thus with religion itself.
“The other day you said, if a man hit you, you’d turn the other cheek. I didn’t like that. Only an angel could do that, or a dog. I’m sorry but I’m neither. I’m a free man. I don’t turn my cheek to anyone.”
Undoubtedly this would not be a Scorsese film without his stylish touches: the long tracking shots, spinning camera movements; there’s even a fantastic, memorable, point-of-view shot as the cross is being raised. A master of his art, his work here would reach an all-time high, particularly in the perfectly-synergised moments between his direction, Thelma Shoonmaker’s editing (she did pretty-much all of Scorsese’s films), DOP Michael ‘Goodfellas’ Ballhaus’s cinematography and the spectacular score work done by musician Peter Gabriel. Standout moments include the perfectly-edited build-up of the disciples following Jesus; the proud, rousing ride to the Temple in Jerusalem; and the cavalcade of more heavenly anthems introduced during the closing shot.
The soundtrack would earn composer Peter Gabriel a Golden Globe Nomination, and help bring world music into mainstream circles; and Scorsese would receive his second Best Director Oscar Nomination, marking the second time – after Raging Bull – that he deserved to win but didn’t (ironically juxtaposed with the time that he won what felt like a more retrospectively honorary award – for The Departed). Indeed if you’re a fan of the man’s work, then you simply can’t miss The Last Temptation of Christ. It’s not the most well known title in his oeuvre – perhaps because it’s neither a “Classic Era” De Niro collaboration (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas), nor a “Modern Era” Di Caprio collaboration (The Aviator, Shutter Island) – but it is a strong contender for his finest accomplishment.
“Today and tomorrow I cast out devils and work cures. On the third day... I shall be perfected.”
Ironically, where the initial outrage and protests against the film only gave it greater success at the cinema through the sheer scale of the controversy, the enduring effects were far more devastating – not on the film itself, which has only grown in critical acclaim, but on the future of films like this. After the violence and uprising against the movie, no major Hollywood Studio would touch subject-matter like this. This, of course, had an even greater effect on writers – what writer, or philosopher, would even bother tackling this subject if this was the kind of response it received: being banned, ex-communicated and anathematised. No, there will likely never be another The Last Temptation of Christ, or anything even remotely approaching its approximation; the closest we will likely have is the grand, ethereal existential reflections of the likes of Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life, The Thin Red Line), with nothing straying too far into controversial territory, for fear of the potential for a destructive public reaction.
Ultimately, the film’s greatness lies in the fact that, unlike the Church, with its traditional teaching and emphasis on the divinity of Christ, the author and the director have, by emphasising and depicting the humanity and physicality of Christ the Son of Man, made Christ infinitely more accessible as the Son of God.
In so far as the film tackles the profound, existential questions and dilemmas of life – the battle between the flesh and the spirit; between good and evil; between things of this earth and things more spiritual – in such simple yet graphic terms, using the very life of Christ as the battleground, it is an exceptional work of art. This is what elevates it to being a masterpiece amidst masterpieces – the use of the story of a sacred life to explain the weakness of being ‘man’, the ease with which he can fall down to temptation; the film evokes the very fundamentals of being human, the heartbeat of compassion, the thirst for justice, the power of live, and life ultimately to be gained only through its utter sacrifice.
“The dual substance of Christ –
the yearning, so human,
so superhuman, of man to attain God...
has always been a deep
inscrutable mystery to me.
My principle anguish and source
of all my joys and sorrows
from my youth onward
has been the incessant,
merciless battle between
the spirit and the flesh...
and my soul is the arena
where these two armies
have clashed and met.”
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