Revisiting Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” – Hebrews 4:15

“The dual substance of Christ—the yearning, so human, so superhuman, of man to attain to God or, more exactly, to return to God and identify himself with him—has always been a deep inscrutable mystery to me. My principal anguish and the source of all my joys and sorrows from my youth onward has been the incessant, merciless battle between the spirit and the flesh. Within me are the dark immemorial forces of the Evil One, human and pre-human; within me too are the luminous forces, human and pre-human, of God—and my soul is the arena where these two armies have clashed and met.” – Nikos Kazantzakis, author of “The Last Temptation of Christ”

When Martin Scorsese set out to make a film adaptation of the Niko Kazantzakis novel, “The Last Temptation of Christ”, the legendary director did not intend cause a storm. The making of the film was a deeply personal spiritual quest for Scorsese and one that he had felt burdened to complete for a very long time. Many years passed, and several attempts to produce Last Temptation had failed.

However, in 1987, production began, courtesy of MCA Universal who felt that the film was an important piece. The film immediately drew controversy, and several people tried to talk Scorsese and his crew out of making the film. Scorsese pressed on, believing strongly in the material. Production was rushed on a limited budget, and soon, Thelma Schoonmaker was editing for post-production.

Meanwhile, hordes of right-wing extremists gathered round, promising to destroy the film once it was released. Upon the films release, the extremists were picketing and shouting boycott – rallying against the film sight unseen. Guards had to stand on either side of the theatre screen in just about any screening room in which the film was being projected, as there were threats to damage the screen during certain moments in the film which were deemed “blasphemous” by those who had probably never seen a dictionary in their lives – the very definition of the word “blasphemy” being lost on them. As it turns out, all of the controversy was for naught. The Last Temptation of Christ continues to be a highly philosophical, terribly misunderstood film to this very day, a film which explores the dual nature of Christ; a Jesus film not for the mainstream, but for the intellectual.

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Jesus and Mary Magdalene

Scorsese’s film opens over Peter Gabriel’s magnificent score with a disclaimer, which reads: This film is not based upon the Gospels but upon this fictional exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict – the “eternal conflict” being one of the spirit and the flesh. Jesus Christ was both man and God, existing in one body. As he was human, the Scriptures inform us that Christ was tempted in every way that man has been tempted, and as a result, God is able to relate to all of mankind on every conceivable level. Scorsese’s audacious approach to this delicate subject matter is both tender and uncompromising, as the film places an emphasis on the human element of Christ, without neglecting the divine.

This hypothetical envisioning of the Scriptures sees Christ as tormented, torn between loyalty to his Father and the desires of man. As portrayed by Willem Dafoe, we see Christ attempt time and time again to rebel against his calling, and yet, he can never bring himself to do it. Even as he builds crosses for the Roman soldiers, he cannot escape God’s will, no matter how much he wants God to hate Him. He claims to have sinned, clearly confusing his inherently pure and holy nature with hypocrisy and pride, and constantly asks God to “forgive” him for being a “selfish” son. It is impossible for this Christ to have sinned, as we never see any evidence of it. Any and all allurements that come his way are defeated outright. He simply cannot give in. We see Christ as he seeks God’s direction in the desert and is approached by Satan in various manifestations, we see him as he is tempted by Mary Magdalene (played by the excellent Barbara Hershey), and we watch him throughout the film, as he constantly tramples upon Satan and his snares. Ultimately, it is during the “last temptation” on the cross in which Christ reigns victorious.

This controversial segment consists of Christ being tempted by Satan – who appears to him as an angelic little girl – as he is hanging from the cross. The young girl pulls the nails from his hands and feet, and removes the crown of thorns from his head. As she pulls him from the cross, the deceptive vision begins: Jesus enters a wedding procession, in which he marries Mary Magdalene and starts a family. During this sequence, we see Jesus and Magdalene locked in a passionate embrace for a mere twenty seconds. This, more than anything else, brought on the right-wing lynch mob. It goes without saying that this scene is handled with the utmost constraint and is never explicit. The dream continues as Jesus grows old, and Mary eventually dies. However, Judas (a magnificent Harvey Keitel) appears to Jesus, and reveals that he has been lured into this state by Satan, and reminds him that without his sacrifice there is no redemption. Christ immediately wakes from this vivid hallucination still nailed to the cross, triumphant and ready to die for the sins of the world. As he utters the words, “It is accomplished”, the screen fills with white light, the celluloid flares, and the film ends.

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The last temptation

Most of the films detractors – namely the few who had seen it – must have missed the disclaimer at the front of the film. They could not bring themselves to wrap their narrow minds around the fact that the last thirty minutes of the film are an illusion.

The humanity of Jesus is incredibly unsettling to many people because of all that it implies.

The Last Temptation of Christ is a powerful, rich film experience, provocative and full of life. Definitely not for the close-minded or the faint of heart, this controversial epic is Scorsese’s masterpiece.

One thought on “Revisiting Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ

  1. Superb movie that was indeed completely misunderstood. It is certainly one of the most intelligent and thoughtful looks at religion and faith.


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