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Last Temptation of Christ

A movie directed by Martin Scorsese

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The Cross and Everything After

  • Feb 1, 2009
Pros: An unwavering portrayal of the human side of Jesus

Cons: Doubtful it will cause those who deny that side of him to think

The Bottom Line: Do you think maybe the point of God coming to Earth was to show that he doesn't offend as easily as his followers would like to believe?

It occurs to me as I write this that I don't ever recall the Jesus of the Gospels so much as implying his own perfection. Christians say God is a triune god consisting of the father, the son, and the holy spirit. Or to put it more succinctly, god, man, and spirit. The key to understanding The Last Temptation of Christ, director Martin Scorsese's deeply moving film about Jesus, is to remember that second part: MAN. This is the idea about Jesus which many Christians either outright forget or strive to deny. Man. Jesus as man, imperfect, living, eating, sleeping, breathing as one of us. In Last Temptation, Scorsese takes Jesus the man, rips him from Jesus the god and Jesus the spirit, and gives him the center stage.

Many followers of Christ see him as a powerful, well-spoken, confident being who tells the Romans to take him in a firm and steely tone. Last Temptation's Christ doesn't even come close to this. The Last Temptation of Christ, based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, presents a Jesus who is fully human and susceptible to all the same desires. As portrayed by Willem Dafoe, Jesus in Last Temptation is an admitted sinner who seeks repentance for his past sins when we first meet him. Within the first half hour, Jesus helps execute a fellow Jew on a cross he makes himself and lusts for Mary Magdalene.

Throughout the movie, Jesus is reluctant to accept his destiny. Even after he begins to feel freed from the sins he committed in the past, he still curses his father because he never asked to have this kind of destiny - he would much rather be constructing the crosses than hanging from one. God never speaks to him and so he is constantly confused and unsure of what is going to happen to him. When he speaks in front of crowds, Jesus has trouble finding the right words when he gets their attention. In fact, he never thinks of the right words to say - hecklers are constantly there, asking him if this was it, if this is the great plan of the messiah. No one second-guess the words of Jesus more than he does himself. When he visits the garden in Jerusalem, Jesus asks to be spared if it's at all possible. 

Since the emphasis of Last Temptation is on Jesus as man, even the miracles Jesus performs come without ceremony. There's no miracle montage as there would be in many other movies. There is no "Eureka!" moment. Jesus is trying to keep a low profile, and so he performs miracles as though he has no other choice. When he turns water into wine, he merely says "Trust me, it's wine." When the wedding patrons check it, it does turn out to be wine, and Jesus merely smirks and raises his glass to the onlookers who are probably convinced that it was wine all along. Lazarus is seen being brought back from the dead, but this is Jesus' only proof-positive miracle in the movie. Lazarus is murdered promptly after being brought back. Most miracles aren't even shown at all.

The most prolific disciple in Last Temptation is Judas. Judas is also the most interesting character. He is more convinced that Jesus is the messiah than Jesus is. But Jesus is constantly changing what his plan is, and Judas eventually grows impatient with Jesus' oft-aimless new plans. We see this growing impatience and anger in his eyes and we automatically understand why he would go out and betray Jesus. But what we don't expect is Jesus to ask him to betray him before Judas actually goes out and does it. The seeds of the betrayal are slowly planted throughout the movie, but when Jesus tells Judas to betray him, Judas clearly doesn't want to do it. Sure he's annoyed... But betray his rabbi? Judas gets a look on his face which cleanly says "You want me to WHAT?!"

The crucifixion, like many other events in the movie, comes unceremoniously. Jesus is hung up in front of an unruly crowd. While the movie always plays loose with the scriptures, this is where it begins to diverge into something entirely different. One of the onlookers is a young girl who claims to be the guardian angel of Jesus, whose father finally decided that he's suffered enough and can go home. She proceeds to take Jesus down from the cross, take him to his wedding to Mary Magdalene, and escort him through the rest of a normal life. Jesus is seen, among other things, confronting Paul, who is shown as a scam artist trying to give the people something to believe in. Anyone familiar with the Gospels might find this an odd sequence because the girl is constantly there, and we're not able to tell if Jesus is having a dream or a hallucination or if it's really happening. The ultimate answer to the question of what this sequence is comes at the very end, and I can say I was very surprised, delighted, and moved by it.

As I mentioned before, Martin Scorsese plays fast and loose with the Gospels and more to the book by Nikos Kazantzakis. People familiar with the Biblical Christ will certainly be able to recognize some of the stories. But many of the stories are written in a looser style, one which is more fitting to the atmosphere of Jesus the man. Many of the stories have a very thick, coarse coat. In the scene of Jesus' baptism, for example, John the Baptist is portrayed as a slightly psychotic leader of a group of people which bears a strong resemblance to a cult. There's no elaborate trial scene, and if there's one important thing I think Scorsese should have included, the trial is it. Christians portray Pilate as a cruel and ruthless thug who decided to kill Jesus just because he could, but the Gospels actually portray Pilate as a more nuanced and dare I say compassionate character than that. Jesus was being tried for treason in front of the Roman elite. Pilate was the only one in the Gospels who seemed aware of the fact that Jesus had not only never committed a crime, but that killing him would bring much bigger and more numerous problems than it would solve. In this movie, we get a quick scene with David Bowie playing Pilate. I really wanted to see Pilate's side of the story explored more in depth.

Martin Scorsese has said he was surprised by the controversy Last Temptation caused. Earth to Marty! Earth to Marty! You've made a movie which portrays Jesus as, among other things, an executioner, an incompetent, and less sure of his own god than any of the people surrounding him. And you're not expecting controversy? What Martin Scorsese did do with The Last Temptation of Christ was create a powerful, moving movie portraying the most forgotten side of Jesus. It is a reminder that, god and spirit aside, Jesus was a man, just like us. He desired things, like us. He got angry, confused, and scared just like us. When you think about it, blasphemy doesn't seem so bad in such a context. If there is a god and he does get offended by blasphemy, he shouldn't. After all, he came down and lived it before.


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review by . January 22, 2002
posted in Movie Hype
Pros: .......     Cons: .......     The Bottom Line: ........        I was raised a Baptist. Not a holy-roller, Bible thumping type of Baptist, just a regular Baptist. We studied the Bible, including the new and old testaments and although I haven't been a regular church member for many years, I still have those testaments burrowed away in my head.       To say I found this movie both intriguing and disquieting …
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Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial.      Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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This striking vision from the mind of director Martin Scorsese offers an allegorical interpretation of the last days of Jesus Christ, based on the book by Nikos Kazantzakis. Based strictly on Kazantzakis's book, the film has a very different focus than past portraits of the "Messiah." This Jesus (Willem Defoe) is a man wracked with doubt over his position among his followers and fear of the role God has chosen for him, as well as the pain that must accompany it. He is unsure whether the messages he receives come from God or Satan, and he is tempted by a mortal life filled with earthly possessions and sensual love, resulting in a controversial, though genuinely sympathetic, account of Christianity's most revered figure. <br> <br> Scorsese establishes a dreamlike mood by combining Michael Ballhaus?s photography with a transcendent soundtrack by Peter Gabriel in order to fully explore the idea that perhaps Jesus was both God and man. Rather than train his assembled cast to deliver their lines in historical...
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Director: Martin Scorsese
Release Date: 1988
MPAA Rating: R
DVD Release Date: Home Vision (April 18, 2000)
Runtime: 2hr 43min
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