Directed By: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Barbara Hershey
Trivia: The Jews have American accents while the Romans have British accents
Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ was the center of a great deal of controversy when it was released in 1988. Morality in Media declared the film “an attack on Christianity”, and the government of Chile, calling it “blasphemous”, banned the movie outright. But the story at the heart of The Last Temptation of Christ is far from blasphemous, unless it’s now considered blasphemy to believe what the church has taught for centuries, that Jesus, though divine, was also very mortal. It’s this dual nature that the film explores, and does so in a most compelling manner.
Placing a different spin on the life of Jesus, The Last Temptation of Christ is based not on scripture, but a novel penned by Nikos Kazantzaki. Beginning with his days as a carpenter, we meet a Jesus (Willem Dafoe) who's regarded as a traitor by his fellow countrymen, due to the fact he makes crosses for the Romans which are used to put Jews to death. His sharpest critic is his friend, Judas (Harvey Keitel), a militant bent on driving said Romans out of Judea. But along with the constant insults tossed his way, Jesus suffers internal strife, haunted by visions he can't understand. Before long, he discovers these visions are the handiwork of God. So, he turns to preaching, traveling the land and gaining many followers as he goes. With a select group of men to assist him, including Judas, Peter (Victor Argo) and John (Michael Been), Jesus performs miracles and brings the word of God to the people. But along the way, he manages to incur the wrath of both local religious leaders and the militants, who, led by Paul (Harry Dean Stanton), see Jesus’ good deeds as little more than a diversion from the task at hand: ridding Judea of the Romans. Arrested and sentenced to death by Pontius Pilate (David Bowie), Jesus accepts his fate as God’s will, yet there's one more temptation he must face before his suffering will come to an end.
The Last Temptation of Christ brings to the story of Jesus a rare human quality. Like most men, Jesus is at first unsure of his purpose in life, and despises the weaknesses that cause him to sin. Many of today’s religious leaders preach solely of Jesus’ divinity, yet isn’t the true miracle of his life the fact he was as much flesh and blood as he was the son of God? Far from the rallying cry of atheists and non-believers it’s purported to be, The Last Temptation of Christ kicks off several years before the scriptures, at a time when Jesus hadn't yet realized his true purpose. He hears voices, but doesn’t understand them. He has headaches, but can’t say why. And he knows God has a plan for him, yet isn’t sure if he even wants to know what it is. We see a Jesus searching for answers, and petrified of finding them. “God loves me”, he says, “but I can’t take the pain. I want him to hate me”. God eventually reveals his grand scheme, yet does so slowly, and it’s more than flesh and bone can stand.
Scripture tells us Jesus lived as man, that he faced temptations and suffered excruciating torture. The Last Temptation of Christ takes the story a step further, showing us Jesus’ very human reaction to it all. It's this preference for the earthly over the divine that stirred up all the controversy, but did this humanity truly diminish the power of Jesus’ divinity? If believers are willing to accept he lived among us as a man, why is it heresy to assume there were times when he acted like one, experiencing the same hardships and uncertainties that affect us all? Wouldn’t this make his ultimate sacrifice all the more potent?
Christians believe Jesus gave his life for our sins. The Last Temptation of Christ is the first film to show us just how great a sacrifice that truly was