From the off, this Jesus is not the confident and charismatic crowd-winner we're used to. He's wracked by conflict, as God calls him to fearful duties and Lucifer puts to him, again and again, the idea that he's mistaken, that he's no messiah and should simply live his life. The crowds simply aren't convinced by his speeches, and familiar sermons meet with derision and doubt, rather than open-eared adoration. As it becomes clearer to Jesus that he really is the son of God, he's dismayed and terrified, as he knows where it will lead. This Jesus is the only carpenter who'll make crosses for the Romans, and he's despised for it, by himself, as much as the other Jews.
|Judas, comforted by Jesus|
What of the Last Temptation of the title? It's the whole point of the film, but is constrained to the final fifth of a two-and-a-half hour movie. I'll be sauntering somewhat into spoiler territory here, but since you may have already seen that screen-cap down there it's already sort-of too late, but this really isn't a film that relies greatly on twists, so I don't think your viewing experience will be diminished. So, as you may know, Jesus goes out into the desert for forty days to fast and meditate, and while there is thrice tempted by Satan. It's brilliantly realised in this film, which paraphrases events as well as words, and so makes both dialogue and visuals engaging and surprising. Satan says that Jesus will see him again, and it's at this point that Jesus takes up the main body of his mission.
|Aged Jesus and his guardian angel|
It's highly likely this film inspired 'Human Nature' that Tennant-era Doctor Who classic: in each, our hero is offered a vision of a normal human life, the delight of love, family, and a good, natural death of old age - and each has to choose whether to live the life they yearn for, that they've certainly earnt, or to die unjustly and save the world. Eventually Jesus begins to hear people condemn him for failing to be the crucified and resurrected Jesus they're preaching, and who the people need to save them. For me the film's highlight is a scene in which old Jesus runs into a highly animated Paul of Tarsus, given the film's most enjoyable performance by Harry Dean Stanton, and condemns him pretending that there had ever been a crucifixion, let alone a resurrection.
I suspect the film's ongoing controversy arises largely from the idea (all in the fantasy of this last temptation, and largely, though not wholly, implied rather than shown) that Jesus had sex. With, y'know, women. The weakness and doubt shown in this presentation of Jesus is likely another factor, as well as the role of Judas and the notable amount of casual nudity. (My friend Tom Hagley described this as a 'nipple film', venturing that a high percentage of shots contain at least one visible, often Willem Dafoe's). I don't think these things should count against a very good film about Jesus, which really gets to the core of why the crucifixion was necessary to reconcile man to God, and why God didn't relieve Jesus of this burden even when he begged for another solution. If you want a modern, well-shot and horribly bloody film about Jesus, his mission and his death, 'The Last Temptation of Christ' is a far more interesting, enjoyable and helpful film than 'The Passion of the Christ' (2004).
Pondering it over the week, I'm tempted to venture that this might even be the best film yet made about Jesus of Nazareth. Feel quite at liberty to disagree in the comments. For another film of a novel about Jesus, albeit one in which he hardly features, tune in on Easter Sunday for my comments on my favourite ever film, 'Ben-Hur: a Tale of the Christ' (1959).