Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation Of Christ

Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation Of Christ

Static Mass Rating: 5/5
Universal Pictures 

Release date: April 14th 2003
Certificate (UK): 18
Running time: 156 mins

Year of production: 1988

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Barbara Hershey, Harry Dean Stanton, David Bowie

As a child growing up and attending Catholic school, I was probably a little more inquisitive than my fellow classmates. I got into trouble a lot for asking too many questions my teachers were unable to answer and as a result spent quite some recesses writing my apologies for my flagrant insolence on the blackboards several times over.

They could make me write it how many times they wanted, but they could never make me mean it. As I got older my questions grew more incessant. Words like slander, blasphemy, sacrilege and heresy cemented themselves in my vocabulary and quite naturally I looked to books, movies, art and music to teach me what teachers couldn’t.

The Last Temptation Of Christ

That’s when The Last Temptation of Christ, based on the by Nikos Kazantzakis, came to my attention. It departed from commonly held Christian beliefs to tell the story of a man torn in all directions; between body, mind, heart and soul. I was riveted because here was a work of art with real substance to it rather than something which relied on shock value to get its message across.

It begins by showing us Jesus’ life as a carpenter in Roman-occupied Judea. He builds crosses the Romans use to crucify Jews but is tormented with feelings that God has a purpose for him, yet he’s filled with self loathing and doubt and questions if these feelings have any real basis or whether he is just insane. He even wonders if he is possessed or being tricked by the Devil.

The Last Temptation Of Christ

Judas Iscariot (Harvey Keitel) arrives, with orders from a group working against the Romans and their collaborators, to kill him but he too comes to believe God has a plan for Jesus.

As Jesus begins preaching his message of love, his following grows. He is also drawn to Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey), a Jewish prostitute, but decides to follow what he believes to be his calling, rather than to stay with her.
He goes on to cure the sick, perform baptisms, raise the dead and turn water into wine; all leading up to his eventual arrest at the Garden of Gethsemane after the Last Supper.

In the most controversial sequence, which led to cries of outrage and calling for the film to be banned and boycotted, Jesus succumbs to the temptation of a normal human existence in a vision on the cross before finally accepting God’s plan for him.

While I’m not a huge fan of Martin Scorsese’s work in general, The Last Temptation of Christ is exceptional. It’s less self indulgent, but perhaps because of its subject matter, that self indulgence is less visible here, instead it’s masked by story which pulls you into its hallucinogenic, dream-like world. We then wonder what Jesus’ life was like and what it felt like to have the world on his shoulders.

The Last Temptation Of Christ

It doesn’t, as the film’s many protestors would like to tell you, turn the Gospel’s upside down, nor is it blasphemous, but it’s certainly thought provoking and offers a rarely explored angle on a life we all think we know so well, but cannot begin to comprehend the complexities of, not just in a religious context, but political, historical and universal as well.

The cinematography captures the sparse, barren landscape just as beautifully as it does the bustling daily life in Jerusalem while Peter Gabriel’s impeccable score does away with the traditional hymns and chorals in favour of something more percussive, tribal and at times painfully haunting. It works well in evoking the sense of torment, bewilderment, anxiety and trials that await Jesus.

William Dafoe as Jesus gives a credible performance, as do David Bowie, Harvey Keitel and Barbara Hershey. They make for an unforgettable film with a lot to think about afterwards, yet, for all its controversy, The Last Temptation of Christ is a film most contested by the people who haven’t seen it.

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