"Whatever path you want, I'll take."
The most controversial film ever made. Even by this point in his career Martin Scorsese had already been involved in a fair amount of controversy regarding the content of his movies. ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘Mean Streets’ contracted some controversy but that was nothing compared to the absolute hatred received by the director, writer, cast and virtually everyone involved with Scorsese’s 1988 religious drama, ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’. It just goes to show that at the end of the day, nobody fucks with Jesus.
Depicting the life of Jesus Christ (Willem Dafoe) and his struggles with various forms of temptation including fear, doubt, depression, reluctance and lust in the build up to his final days and crucifixion.
Banned by countries, condemned by the Vatican and boycotted by just about every Christian group in the world. These are all reactions that only scratch the surface as to just how outraged the world was when Scorsese released his long awaited passion project, in fact Scorsese himself became the target of death threats, accusations of blasphemy and allegations of being a Satan worshipper. TV evangelists tried to buy copies of the film and burn it before it could even reach theatres, if the theatre companies hadn’t already refused to show it that is. In fairness though the theatres had good reason to be worried, anyone who went to see the film ran the risk of being assaulted outside the cinema, in one case with sulphuric acid. It gets much worse. One man drove a fully loaded truck into a cinema playing the movie. On October 22nd another theatre was set ablaze, injuring thirteen people and another cinema bombarded with an attack of Molotov cocktails.
The craziest thing of all is that these are probabaly the same groups of people who, years later, would turn out in droves to support the anti-Semitic bloodbath ‘The Passion of the Christ’. But I digress because a movie like this is already complicated enough to review without going into the mass controversy surrounding it (to this day it’s still banned in the Philippines and Singapore). A review can become less of a critique on the actual film and more of an interpretation of the scripture. Putting aside all the religious debacle (if only the world did that more often), what does the film itself have to say?
Well I can immediately say that the ironic thing about those trying to suppress the film is that ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ is a contemplative and thoughtful meditation on its own subject matter. Like many of Scorsese’s films it carries themes of guilt and redemption but also takes the message of Jesus seriously, never ridiculing it or mocking it, treating it with the utmost respect and giving it gravitas which seems appropriate as these are the beliefs and aspirations of the main character. As an audience we feel his struggle and conflict, building a sense of empathy and forming a strong connection with his internal emotions.
This portrayal of Jesus is very different to the pandering, glossy portrayal other films then and today. Here he is doubtful, weary and struggling with his own position in the world. In many the film itself reimagines Christ in a much more humane interpretation and if anything that only helps further its central message. The film is not trying to find flaws in Christianity for the sake of it, it wants its audience to see their own strengths and weaknesses within Jesus himself and that only further cements the central conceit of the film. The narrative is supported by the characters and reflected by their own emotions that work in tandem with the plot to create an immersive and breath taking experience.
This experience is aided by the stunning direction. Despite being a far cry from his usual habitat of inner city life Scorsese frames and shoots the vast expanses of the desert impeccably, making them look rough and merciless when he needs to but also peaceful and tranquil at others, depending on the emotional state of his title character. The direction never ceases to feel in synch with the plot and emotions, constantly being able to reflect and enhance each aspect. This is something Scorsese has managed to perfect during his career and it’s not missing in ‘The Last Temptation of Chris’ either. It may help that he is once again paired with his screenwriting partner Paul Schrader whose script rings with soaring ambition as well as beautiful intimacy.
As the title character, Willem Dafoe does a magnificent job in bringing forward each quality of the main character that underpins the entire film. Every detail of his performance conveys a sense of conflicted duties and dual roles, someone torn between his beliefs and desires. He is courageous, doubtful and even angry at the world around him but the performance remains constituent to the established character and masterfully enacts each quality both he and other proclaim about him.
Harvey Keitel was infamously nominated for a Razzie award for Worst Supporting Actor due to his role in the film and honestly, I’m not sure why. On the surface his role admittedly seems needlessly cryptic and it is frequently difficult to pin his central motivation down. But given that he is playing Judas Iscariot that almost seems like a given.
The liberties this film takes with the story of Jesus are not intended to blaspheme or offend, they are present to establish a connection between the audience and its central protagonist a trope you will find in any successful narrative. But specifically to ‘The last Temptation of Christ’, a film about the connection between man and god, directed by a devout Catholic, it makes even more sense.
Immensely powerful and thought provoking, epic in scope yet intimate in character.