Notable Festivals: Venice
Inducted into the Criterion Collection- 2000
From the years 2000-2004, I went to a Catholic high school whose ministries were overseen by a group of Jesuit priests. It was an interesting time for Catholic education, as it was when Mel Gibson’s controversial film THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004) was released. The film caused an uproar over its focus on the gory details of Jesus’ crucifixion—a fascination that brought the film to the brink of the torture porn genre. As a hardcore conservative and member of a controversial sect of Christianity, Gibson’s aim was to present a very literal interpretation of Jesus’ sacrifice, using the actual language of the time and showcasing the true brutality of crucifixion in a misguided bid for “authenticity”. This approach proved incredibly divisive, with conservatives and evangelicals hailing it as if it were the literal Second Coming of Christ.
The release of the film caused me to realize that my Catholic high school was actually quite liberal—our priests-in-residence railed against the film during their homilies, calling it out as a single-minded bloodbath. They maintained that faith doesn’t deal in absolutes; it’s not about blindly following ideology and dogma. True faith means questioning your beliefs—digging deeper, enriching it through other interpretations and personal experience. This is why a film like THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST is ultimately so ineffective, and why an equally controversial film like Martin Scorsese’s THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988) endures through the ages. Scorsese’ film takes the opposite tack—depicting Jesus as both fully human and fully divine. The film (and the book it was based on) serves as likely the first time that anyone dared to really examine Jesus’ humanity—by showing us his naked thoughts, doubts, and hopes, the figure of Jesus as well as his teachings suddenly become very tangible, real, and relevant. Ironically, exploring Jesus’ humanity also makes his inherent divinity all the more powerful.
Jesus’ teachings played a hugely influential role in Scorsese’s development as a young man. His Roman Catholic and Italian backgrounds compelled him to be devout in his beliefs, to the point that he had even considered pursuing a profession in the priesthood. Even when he decided that he would become a filmmaker instead, a project about Jesus’ life never remained far from his list of dream projects. The idea existed as a vague, remote notion until the production of Scorsese’s second feature film, BOXCAR BERTHA (1972). He was given a copy of Nikos Kazantzakis’ book, “The Last Temptation Of Christ” by the film’s star, Barbara Hershey, under the condition that she would be cast as Mary Magdalene if he ever made the film one day. Scorsese latched on to the idea of a film exploring Jesus’ humanity from an angle never before portrayed, and after a few more projects were under his belt, he hired his TAXI DRIVER (1976) screenwriter Paul Schrader to adapt the book into a screenplay.
This inadvertently began a long stretch of development hell and false starts that would prevent the film from being realized for nearly another decade. THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST was supposed to follow the making of 1982’s THE KING OF COMEDY, with Aidan Quinn starring as Jesus—but the original studio could not reconcile the film’s required budget with the risk of its anticipated reception, so it abruptly cancelled the film just prior to the start of shooting. Scorsese was understandably depressed over the cancellation of his longtime passion project, but he channeled his energies into the production of other projects. After the surprise success of 1985’s AFTER HOURS, Universal stepped into the fray and offered Scorsese the chance to finally make THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST under the provision that he also shoot a commercial film for them (1991’s CAPE FEAR). It was under these circumstances that Scorsese finally found himself in the fall of 1987 in Morocco, realizing a project he had dreamed about since childhood—a project that would become one of the most seminal, heartfelt films of his career.
We all know the story of Jesus Christ from Nazareth—the man who preached about God’s will and unconditional love and was subsequently branded as a blasphemer by his own people, crucified by the Romans, and rose from the dead three days later to prove his divinity. There’s a reason it’s known as The Greatest Story Ever Told—it’s one of the most well known stories throughout the entire history of humanity. THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST tells this same story, but from a radically new perspective. Jesus (Willem Dafoe) is a Jewish crossmaker who suffers from debilitating headaches and terrifying voices inside his head. Scorsese doesn’t put Jesus up on a pedestal—he brings us right into Jesus’ head and lets us hear his own internal monologue as he wrestles with his faith and his doubts about his destiny. When his good friend Judas (Harvey Keitel) rather forcefully demands that he follow his heart and begin preaching a radically new interpretation of God (one that eschews the fire and brimstone of the Old Testament in favor of a friendlier, unconditionally loving deity), Jesus finds himself cultivating a humble–yet steadily growing– following. He finally accepts his destiny and agrees to be sacrificed on the cross in order to absolve humanity of sin, but it’s not until he’s actually up on that cross that the story diverges greatly from the established gospels. He is greeted by an angel in the form of a young girl, who brings him down from the cross and takes him to be married to his lifelong love, Mary Magdalene (Hershey). He is told that all of his suffering was simply a test, and his reward is a normal human life with a wife and children. He grows old, begetting many sons and daughters, but upon his deathbed, he realizes that the angel may have actually been Satan in disguise, and in his selfish pursuit of happiness and normalcy, he has unwittingly betrayed his destiny and forsaken his people.
Right off the bat, Scorsese signals that THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST isn’t your grandfather’s biblical epic. Whereas conventional Hollywood films about biblical times would have you believe everyone spoke in British accents, Scorsese allows his actors to use their natural vocal inflections and accents—to the point that a large section of the cast sounds like they walked right out of Little Italy. While the approach sound incongruous in principle, it’s really no less incongruous than using British accents. On the contrary, Scorsese’s approach actually brings out a sense of truth and immediacy to the characterization while diminishing the pageantry of it all. Willem Dafoe makes for an unexpectedly brilliant Jesus—one who is very relatable in his quiet doubt. Far from the strong, pious image of Jesus seen in a Sunday school textbook, Dafoe’s portrayal is conflicted and frail. Even his carpentry background is given a new complication with the revelation that he specializes in making crosses for the Romans. Harvey Keitel had been absent from Scorsese’s frame since TAXI DRIVER, so the longtime collaborator’s gruff, self-righteous countenance is warmly welcomed here as Jesus’ friend and betrayer, Judas. Keitel’s bright red hair matches the inner fire driving his convictions and thirst for justice, and the actor’s unquestioning love for his master provides an extremely compassionate insight into one of the most hated men in all of recorded history. As of this writing, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST would become the last collaboration between Scorsese and Keitel—a poignant capstone to a series of projects that propelled both men to the forefront of their respective professions.
Scorsese’s supporting cast is populated by some of the most iconic names of 70’s and 80’s cinema culture. There is, of course, Barbara Hershey’s performance as Mary Magdalene—a prostitute and the woman who would become Jesus’ wife if he were not called a life of celibacy. BOXCAR BERTHA saw Hershey as a pretty and carefree young girl, so it’s incredibly striking to see her next collaboration with Scorsese blossom into a performance that’s world-weary and hardened. Verna Bloom, another longtime collaborator of Scorsese’s who had previously appeared in AFTER HOURS, plays Mary the mother of Jesus. Bloom’s Mary is frail and stricken with grief—a far cry from the traditional image of The Virgin Mary that adorns stain glass windows and paintings. Victor Argo, who up until this point had been content to appear in small cameos throughout Scorsese’s work, is given a big job in the form of Jesus’ most famous apostle, Peter—a job that Argo handles quietly, yet powerfully. Harry Dean Stanton plays Saul, the murderous zealot turned prophet of Christianity, while THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) director Irving Kershner pops up as one of Jesus’ earliest and most curmudgeonly followers. Finally, there’s David Bowie as the infamous Roman judge, Pontius Pilate. Bowie’s slender, androgynous physicality lends an urbane and sophisticated touch to yet another well-trodden biblical character.
In order to shoot THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, Scorsese and company had to make sacrifices in their budget. This meant a scaled-back shooting aesthetic, but fortunately the minimalistic look works in the film’s favor. Scorsese reteams with cinematographer Michael Ballhaus to recreate the warm, dusty landscapes of ancient Jerusalem, with the locations carefully chosen to convey a great degree of grit and immediacy. Scorsese is able to retain the use of dynamic camera work, with the mobility of the Steadicam rig affording him the ability to convey delirious energy and movement despite limited time and resources. Longtime editing partner Thelma Schoonmaker weaves it all together in expectedly brilliant fashion against Peter Gabriel’s groundbreaking New Age score, which combines the ancient character of the old world with contemporary rock percussion that sounds like a prehistoric antecedent to Phil Spector’s Wall Of Sound. The incorporation of seminal rock figures like Gabriel and Bowie points to Scorsese’s inherent love of the musical genre while taking some out of the piss out of the conventional Hollywood bible epic genre.
As Scorsese’s longtime passion project, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST understandably bears the director’s mark quite heavily. His filmography is littered with disadvantaged, sometime-criminal protagonists grappling with matters of faith and religion while navigating the unpredictable chaos of urban life. His career-long incorporation of Roman Catholic dogma, imagery and behavioral practices (such as self-flagellation) goes right to the source in THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, examining the genesis of Catholic ideas and iconography while underscoring their inherent meaning in a modern context. Instead of a community of Roman Catholic Italian Americans attempting to eke out an existence under the established dominance of Protestant Anglo-Saxons, we are presented with a community of Jews scraping by under the watchful eye of the ancient Roman Empire. Jesus in particular can be seen as a lowlife among lowlifes—he is a Jewish man making crosses for a foreign authority that will turn around and hang his own people up on his creations. This causes significant discord between Jesus and his friend Judas, who deplores Jesus’ work as an act of betrayal. Indeed, much of the film’s dramatic weight hinges on the interplay between Jesus and Judas. Their conflicting ideologies represent the core sentiments of their respective Testaments; Judas represents the bloody righteousness of the Old Testament while Jesus puts forth the idea of a new covenant between God and his people based on love, acceptance, and forgiveness.
One of the film’s more striking directorial signatures plays into Scorsese’s membership in the New Hollywood school of filmmaking—a generation that embraced the medium of film directly into their work in a decidedly postmodern fashion. For instance, the film is infamous for its last shot, which is a close-up on Jesus delirious with relief and shouting, “It is accomplished!” shortly before dying on the cross. The music builds into a crescendo as the frame itself bursts into a series of colors that imply his glorious entrance into the afterlife. In reality, this is actually a severe light leak happening in-camera and overexposing the film. A very technical and common occurrence, yes, but one has to admit that the timing is incredibly fortuitous. Scorsese chose to leave this “happy accident” in, taking advantage of the medium’s particular quirks to help tell his story.
THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST was a lifelong labor of love for Scorsese, one that caused many years of grief and heartbreak in his attempt to realize his vision onscreen. It is one of his most significant achievements– a fact that the Academy recognized when it nominated him for a Best Director Oscar later that year. The film is remembered as violently controversial still to this day, the irony being that those spewing the most venom haven’t actually bothered to see the film itself. Admittedly, a film that dares to show Jesus in the act of sexual intercourse with a woman is, suffice to say, going to be met with a great deal of controversy—but there’s no way Scorsese could have anticipated the level of furor that greeted the release of his film. Forget the pearl clutching and condemnation from America’s pulpits— the global Catholic community was so outraged by the film’s existence that some individuals took to radical forms of protest. For instance, a fundamentalist sect reportedly torched a Parisian cinema during a film screening. This film is still banned in some countries.
In the long run, all this outrage has amounted to little more than white noise. Time has revealed THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST for what it is: a respectful examination of Jesus’ life and teachings that refuses to pander to blind ideology. It’s a responsible, thought-provoking look into Jesus’ humanity that’s more relevant to modern Christianity than anything Kirk Cameron is currently hawking. THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST is a triumph of passion and perseverance for Scorsese, and by creating an intimate reflection of Jesus as a man just like us—a man besieged by doubt, regret and fear—he has invited us into the most intimate aspects of his own life and worldview.
THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST is currently available on Blu Ray via the Criterion Collection.
Produced by: Barbara De Fina
Written by: Paul Schrader
Director of Photography: Michael Ballhaus
Production Designer: John Beard
Edited by: Thelma Schoonmaker
Music by: Peter Gabriel