I was at one point a devoted Roman Catholic, but now I find it so difficult to bring myself to commit to religion whether it be to believe in it or to reject it outright. When one would initially think of a title like “The Last Temptation of Christ,” an ardent Catholic may respond to say that the content is blasphemous because Christ is an image of perfection, one who stands for everything good within the world on behalf of another authority. But among the most important factors to consider when watching The Last Temptation of Christ is that it is not a film based on the Gospels but rather a controversial novel by Nikos Kazantzakis and it also happens to be directed by a Roman Catholic – and that man is none other than Martin Scorsese. But when you watch a film like The Last Temptation of Christ being told from those eyes, what makes it such an accomplished effort is how it feels most in touch with Scorsese’s own spirituality.
Starring Willem Dafoe as Jesus Christ, The Last Temptation of Christ offers a perspective upon his final days leading up to the crucifixion. Rather than portraying Jesus Christ as a leader of the people, we are shown Christ as he is dealing with various forms of temptation ranging from fear, lust, doubt, and reluctance. Being the subject of controversy from many Christian and Catholic groups like the novel it was based on, it is easy to see why The Last Temptation of Christ would have been deemed blasphemous but this perspective also would put their own fundamental beliefs into question. This is a film about the duality of devoting oneself to religion, because it shows that there would be far more to the story of Christ than what devoted followers would want to admit. It is not a portrayal of Jesus Christ as the Messiah, but rather a portrayal of Jesus Christ as another human being living within the very doubt of what it is that he believes in.
What rings clear from watching The Last Temptation of Christ is that this is truly a story that Martin Scorsese had wanted to tell, for he had grown up a Roman Catholic and wanted to make a film about the life of Jesus Christ since he was a child. His choice to adapt a controversial novel rather than the Gospels has kept him in touch with his spirituality far more than what one would expect, but from watching The Last Temptation of Christ you already see a rare perspective to come out from the Roman Catholic system. Scorsese doesn’t want to abide by portraying Jesus Christ as a figure of only good influence upon his people, but as another human being whose beliefs are being tested by that influence he has over his followers. There is still an impulse of evil present within the mind of Jesus Christ as he overcomes various forms of temptation during his final days, hence the title, “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Yet even though these impulses may not be associated to what we have learned all our lives about Jesus Christ, what makes The Last Temptation of Christ an eye-opener is the fact that it still creates a sense of affirmation within faith rather than criticize it outright.
It feels like the sort of film that only a Roman Catholic could ever make, because this is a portrayal of Jesus Christ that portrays him as being susceptible to evil deeds whether it be lusting for Mary Magdalene or his doubts in God’s faith in him. But having grown up within a Roman Catholic family myself, what watching The Last Temptation of Christ has presented for me was that perhaps what we see in our own belief system that maybe it has not been utilized for the very purpose in which we know it had been intended for. In our current political climate, we already have religiously influenced bigotry going after homosexual people and those who share different belief systems that all stem back to people who take their label of being a Catholic or a Christian and using it as a means of spreading hate (Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ being a perfect example of this). But to what extent do they truly know that their system is the only one that stands for what they see to be the greater good in all of mankind? Watching this, the sight of Jesus Christ as a figure who is doubtful even of that influence to which he has spread across Judea as a presence as the messiah, it only hits me as even more honest because of how true this feels to the human condition – and even those who so blindly follow their own system have come to such a point of conformity they don’t see their own wrongdoings. It is of no shock to me that this would be deemed as blasphemous, but the fact it was deemed as such only reaffirms what Scorsese intended to say and I believe that is what makes The Last Temptation of Christ such a beautiful film.
Speaking again of fear, The Last Temptation of Christ is a film that is so clearly built upon the fear that an established image in our minds may very well not be what we believe on the spot. We only see the superiors as being everything we strive to be, but we also fear disappointment. But in the eyes of Martin Scorsese, Jesus Christ is an influential figure who still has human instincts, he is not invulnerable even to those various temptations that we go through as human beings. It all comes forth as a means of testing how people who say that they are so devoted to his teachings truly do value said teachings. But being in that position where one leads the way for so many, especially Catholics and Christians, sometimes you can only wonder from the very eyes of Jesus Christ if his own teachings as the messiah only limit themselves to what one is told by their own experience; and that sums up the greatest power of The Last Temptation of Christ. This is not a film that was made to change the way one feels about what they believe in but the beauty of what this film teaches is the importance of experience and how devoted we are to what we are taught all our lives about Christian morale – are we truly using it for the betterment of humanity?
This is also a film about devotion. A film about the devotion to your own beliefs in spite of the many doubts that have come along the way. In Willem Dafoe’s portrayal of Jesus Christ, arguably the most accomplished to have graced the screen since Enrique Irazoqui in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew, what you are seeing is a story about someone prepared for the challenges that are set to come forth, especially within what would become his final days leading up to the crucifixion. And what makes this portrayal so stunning is how Schrader and Scorsese still portray him under a reverent light. But even more moving comes the nuance in Willem Dafoe’s performance as Jesus Christ, because it is built upon what he feels as a human being – living in such a frail condition as he sees himself to be a sinner as established within the opening. And even as he performs a miracle, there is still that sense of reservation in his eyes yet his devotion to his own ways is what allows such moments to be incredibly moving.
What more is there to be said about the very state of mind that this film leaves me in? I only think to myself about how my experience being taught Roman Catholic ways has affected my life – I question whether or not it has done so for the better. I finish every revisit of The Last Temptation of Christ asking myself this because of how these teachings have impacted my own growth and not by my own choice. But knowing this is a story that comes from someone who was questioning conservative Christian values, it only leaves me all the more fascinated in how these teachings have impacted society the way that they did. There was no doubt that Kazantzakis would be subject to controversy, but to see that Scorsese has given his own audiences a chance to question the ways that they limit themselves only makes its spiritual nature shine all the more. It shouldn’t just be about any one teaching but rather how said values coming from Jesus Christ’s own perspective were intended to be taught – and maybe how they have all been lost within how they are used.
It’s stunning how a film like this can resonate outside of Christian beliefs, but in allowing a story like this to see the light on the big screen, what Scorsese has created is without doubt one of his most important films. Beyond being such a formally accomplished effort whether it be in its visual look, the inspired casting going from Barbara Hershey as Mary Magdalene to Harvey Keitel as Judas Iscariot and David Bowie as Pontius Pilate, or the orgasmic score by Peter Gabriel, you already feel that this is a movie that Martin Scorsese had wanted to make for longer than many of his more recognizable works. It shows how there is still so much to learn about the very sources to which we know our beliefs and values come forth especially when they make such a great impact on our lives.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Universal.
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Screenplay by Paul Schrader, from the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis
Produced by Barbara De Fina
Starring Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Barbara Hershey, Harry Dean Stanton, David Bowie
Release Year: 1988
Running Time: 163 minutes