The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

27 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Spoiler Alert…but come on; you know how this story ends already.

God sent his son to spread His message. There are many ways He could’ve gotten his word across to man, but by using his son as a symbol. God so loved mankind that he made his one begotten son into a man. When Jesus rose from the grave three days after being shamed and beaten and crucified onto a wooden cross to die because of his constant spreading the message of love, that message become clear, and that’s what’s being taught in Christian teachings to this day. Renowned director Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” adapted by screenwriter Paul Schrader from the novel of the same name by Nikos Kazantakis, is a film that shows just how cruelly difficult it was for Jesus to carry on in becoming that symbol. Because he was both a man and the Son of God, he had the same temptations of man.

Sometimes knowing what he had to be would be hard for him to take in. But not knowing what to do made it even tougher. And with the Devil coming in many forms to steer him away from the path to delivering the message, he would even wonder what it would be like to live a normal life as a man. He had desires, thoughts, feelings; the same as any other man. And he had to resist such temptations in order to carry out his mission. What we can take from this film is that it’s “more difficult to be a good man than God.” (That’s a line Gene Siskel originally wrote in his Chicago Tribune review of this film; I’m sorry, but that’s such a good quote.)

The film (as well the book it was based on, for that matter) makes it very clear that it isn’t based entirely on the Bible and that’s more of an interpretation of what Jesus must have felt in the last days of his life. At the time of this film’s release, many religious groups have attacked the film for it, calling it “blasphemous.” (But then again, religious extremists will fire shots at any film in which God is mentioned in terms of story, like “Life of Brian” and “The Passion of the Christ,” usually when they haven’t even seen the film.) Since then, it has become widely appreciated as one of the finest religious films ever made, because it challenges audiences with questions of faith and belief and gets the message across in a very strong way, by showing what trials and tribulations Jesus had to face before fully carrying out his destiny. It’s a message that can give comfort to any sinner.

Willem Dafoe portrays Jesus—a challenging role to say the least but he pulls it off successfully. He’s a New Testament guy in an Old Testament land (in this case, the location of Morocco), where the message of love and forgiveness is not easily delivered. And it’s not easy for him either. Sometimes he doubts himself and questions whether or not he truly is the Son of God (and when he does believe, he uses it to reproach his mother and the memory of his father—ouch). When the prostitute, Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey), is forbidden to attend a wedding, Jesus has to be as calm as possible in order to rationally bring her in. Sometimes, he’ll confide in Judas (Harvey Keitel, possibly the film’s weak link—I didn’t buy him entirely in this role), who is portrayed as a better man than most teachings have made him out to be (and his name becoming a curse doesn’t help either)—here, he’s a man doing what he thinks he’s supposed to do.

It all leads to the most controversial sequence of the film. Jesus is crucified on the cross, in extreme pain, listening to those around him either berating him or screaming in pain, and he starts to hallucinate and imagine what it would be like if he was taken down from the cross and able to live out the rest of his life as a regular human being. He marries Mary Magdelene, has a family, and lives a full life. But he is also shamed by his former followers, who claim he abandoned his mission and say they don’t know what to believe anymore. Jesus soon finds the strength to shake off his temptation and return to the cross, where he will die as God’s son and come back to deliver the last piece of the message.

Scorsese, who was raised Catholic, is hardly a strange choice to make “The Last Temptation of Christ,” since a good chunk of his films are about flawed people seeking redemption. He knew he was taking a big risk with the Christian right, and he even received death threats and had to arrange private, secure screenings for critics before the film’s release. But he’s a skilled filmmaker, as well as a believer, and those who see the film for what it is can appreciate what he put into it.

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