Thursday 28 March 2013

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

This film was exceedingly controversial when it came out in the late eighties.  It's based, not on the gospels, but on a novel about Jesus, and does the two things one can always expect from New Testament fan-fic: Jesus is romantically linked to Mary Magdalene, and he asks Judas to betray him.  And then, of course, there's his last temptation, but I'll get to that.  In spite (or even because of) this portrayal of a remarkably weak, human and troubled Christ, this is an excellent film and worth the watching, both for style and content, and one that I'd recommend with the warning that the crucifixions (of which there are several) are very unpleasant indeed (hence its inclusion in this blog's 'horrible films' tag).

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
Rather than praise everybody involved in the making of the film for their style and quality of their performances, I'll save time and name some names.  Martin Scorsese is directing, Peter Gabriel composing, with Willem Dafoe as the Christ.  His lack of physical beauty and easy charm probably makes him the closest screen Jesus to the one Biblical description of Jesus' looks, which crops up in Isaiah: 'he had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him'.  Harvey Keitel is a flame-haired and muscular Judas, the only person Jesus can really rely on.  As usual, it's a fairly white cast for something set in Israel, but unlike most Jesus biopics, the Jews here look and sound Jewish, Jewish-American, to be precise, which works very well.  I feel obliged to mention that there's a single scene cameo by David Bowie as Pontius Pilate, and he's good, quiet, pensive, but is given very little to do here, so my favourite screen Pilate remains Frank Thring in 'Ben-Hur' (1959).

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
As per the Bible, after the Last Supper, Jesus begs God to release him from his fate, to save him from dying on the cross.  Despite this, he's nailed up to die, but just as he's on the cusp of perishing, he cries out, asking why he's been forsaken.  At this point, a young English-accented girl, his guardian angel, tells him God has had mercy and released him from this terrible fate.  He climbs down from the cross, though the crowd still see him there, and he goes on to live a long and mainly happy life.  He marries, has children, grows to old age.  This, though he doesn't see it, is his last temptation.

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).


  1. Have you seen Pasolini's 'The Gospel According to Matthew', Ben? For me, it's not only the best movie about Christ but one of the most beautiful films ever made and was a big influence on 'Last Temptation'.

    1. I have, but it was a very long time ago. I think I have a copy in the house (it was very nearly the blog's film of 1964), so I'll return my attention to it later this week. Thanks for returning it to my mind.