Released in 1988 to a storm of controversy, Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece The Last Temptation of Christ, adapted from the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, departs dramatically from the gospels to show a Jesus entirely different from how he had previously been seen on the screen.
Scorsese, who studied briefly to be a priest before accepting his vocation as a film maker, has dealt with religion as a reoccurring theme from his earliest work. JR (Harvey Keitel), the protagonist from his feature debut, Who’s That Knocking At My Door, had a Madonna complex that made him reject the woman he loved because she’d been raped. His Roger Corman exploitation vehicle Boxcar Bertha saw its leading character Big Bill Shelly (David Carradine) nailed to a train not unlike the fate suffered by Christ. Most notably in Mean Streets, the character of Charlie (again portrayed by Scorsese regular Keitel) struggles with his sense of Catholic guilt in the mob world. In this film, he comes full circle to show Jesus less as the son of God as all films until then had, but as the son of man, struggling to come to grips with responsibility given to him. It was this view of the story of Christ, despite a title card stating that the film was based not on “… the Gospel’s, but upon (the) fictional exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict”, that caused so much anger.
The film depicts a radically different interpretation that still stays relatively close to the source material until the last act that takes a drastic departure from the Gospels. It shows Jesus building crosses for the Roman’s before accepting his calling and gathering his apostles. Scorsese shows the complex, sometimes misidentified as contradictory, nature of his story by first having him preach love to all men before advising them to pick up an axe and cut through evil. The film’s most interesting diversion comes with the recasting of Judas, not as a traitor, but as Jesus’s most trusted ally who fulfills his destiny in betraying Jesus only after he asks him to. The last act, and the most controversial aspect of the film, shows an alternate timeline where Jesus is saved from crucifixion and leads a normal life. Critics of the film sited this as blasphemy, but missed the point entirely that Jesus chooses to be the messiah in the end, not lead the life given to him by the devil. The film is not a denunciation of faith, but a reflection upon it.
Scorsese’s trademark dynamic camera and eclectic soundtrack (here performed by Peter Gabriel) are transported brilliantly to the period setting. The screenplay by Paul Schrader (which Scorsese worked on un-credited) has a modern approach to its dialogue that is delivered perfectly by its cast of character actors. Willem Dafoe, as the screen’s most complex portrayal of Jesus, is surely also its most interesting. He brings a sensitivity to the role in what must be a career best. Harvey Keitel is astounding as a ‘street’ Judas, a radical who doesn’t agree with the teachings of Jesus but follows them on faith. The scene where he confronts Jesus on his death bed in the alternate time line is one of his greatest moments in an impressive filmography. He also excels in small moments such as protesting the teaching that “if a man hits you on one cheek then you should show him the other”, he says to Jesus simply, but with such conviction, “I don’t like that”.
Beautifully crafted, The Last Temptation Of Christ is an incredibly powerful telling of the New Testament, all the more so because it dares to tell it in a new and exciting way.