Based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ is a film that depicts Jesus Christ of Nazareth as a human being who deals with temptation of all kinds as he would eventually be crucified for his own sins. Directed by Martin Scorsese and script adaptation by Paul Schrader, with additional contributions from Scorsese and Jay Cocks, the film explores the final days of the life of Jesus Christ told in a different style where he’s portrayed as a human being. Playing the role of Jesus Christ of Nazareth is Willem Dafoe. Also starring Harvey Keitel, Barbara Hershey, Harry Dean Stanton, Verna Bloom, Andre Gregory, and David Bowie as Pontius Pilate. The Last Temptation of Christ is a mesmerizing yet uncompromising portrait of Jesus Christ’s final days from Martin Scorsese.
Jesus Christ is a carpenter who is dealing with his own self and whatever plans God has for him. Already helping Romans crucify Jewish revolutionaries, he is dealing with self-doubt and self-loathing as his friend Judas Iscariot (Harvey Keitel) is frustrated with him. After meeting with the local prostitute Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey) and asking for her forgiveness, Jesus decides wanders around where he would encounter various moments that would question his role. After seeing Mary Magdalene being stoned for her prostitution, Jesus comes to her aid and asks those who are stoning her if they’re any better where would preach about his ideas to a crowd at the Sermon on the Mount. After gaining some disciples, he meets John the Baptist (Andre Gregory) who would baptize him and later discuss their differing views.
Jesus later tries to communicate with God as he would fight off various temptations including one from the voice of Satan (Leo Marks). Still, Jesus ponders about his role as he takes shelter in the home of Martha (Peggy Gormley) and Mary of Bethany (Randy Danson) where would resurrect their brother Lazarus (Tomas Arana) from the dead. It would be among the many small miracles that would increase his number of disciples, including Judas, as Jesus would lead them to Jerusalem at a temple to rid of those he believed are destroying it. Yet, he gets the attention of Romans while Jesus becomes aware of what he must do as does Judas. After the Last Supper and Judas’ eventual betrayal, Jesus meets with Pontius Pilate who reveals why Jesus had to be crucified.
During Jesus’ crucifixion where Mary Magdalene and Jesus’ mother Mary (Verna Bloom) watches, a young girl (Juliette Caton) who claims to be his guardian angel tells him that he doesn’t have to die for the sins of humanity. Jesus steps out of his cross to live the life of a human being with Mary Magdalene where he would face loss and other circumstances. Notably when a man named Paul (Harry Dean Stanton) makes claims about meeting Jesus Christ over his sins prompting Jesus to wonder if he made the right choices in his life.
Since this is a film about the final days of the life of Jesus Christ told from a very different perspective in which Jesus is portrayed as a human being with flaws and vices. It is a unique approach to exploring the life of a man who would die for the sins of the world. Yet, he would be a man that will be filled with the same doubts and temptations that would drive anyone into doing things that are considered wrong. The story is told from Jesus’ perspective as he would often narrate his doubts about the role he’s playing while he tries to deal with what humanity wants in life.
Paul Schrader’s screenplay, with some re-writes from Martin Scorsese and Jay Cocks, opens with text from the book’s novelist Nikos Kazantzakis to emphasize that this story about Jesus Christ is just a fictional interpretation. Schrader’s script definitely explores the complex behavior of Jesus as he tries to come to terms with who he is and the role that his father God wants from him. Particularly as Jesus wants to be among the many men who will want Mary Magdalene as well as the idea of having children. Yet, he would eventually tempted by strange forces that would challenge his will as he starts to realize the role he is to play. While that role would be a difficult one as people would find his preaching of love as a lot of wishy-washy idealism. He would eventually gain disciples who are interested in what he has to say thinking he has the answers.
Another character that is given more complexity is Judas who is known as Jesus’ betrayer. Yet, he is presented as a man that has a hard time trying to deal with Jesus’ insecurities as he is willing to follow him thinking he could lead a revolution. Eventually, he also realizes the role he must play as well as the fact that he is aware of the heat he will received from Jesus’ disciples. Still, there’s an element of the regret that Judas is going to face as he will appear in a key moment in the film’s third act. Other characters such as Mary Magdalene, Pontius Pilate, John the Baptist, and Saul/Paul would also emphasize the more human interpretation Schrader and Scorsese wanted. Notably in the way they speak their dialogue where instead of displaying some sort of period voice. They talk in their natural dialects or something just as if they’re talking somewhere around the corner.
Schraeder’s intricate yet loosely-based script would allow Martin Scorsese to create a film that doesn’t play up to previous versions of Jesus Christ’s story. Instead of this romanticized portrayal or the shock-value that would be later displayed in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Scorsese chooses to create a film that is entrancing in its images while making Jesus Christ into someone that the viewer can relate to in his struggles with faith and humanity. Shooting on location in Morocco, Scorsese decides to create a film where Jesus is surrounded by a world where things seem to go into chaos as he tries to make sense of everything. Notably as Scorsese would utilize lots of stylistic crane and tracking shots to play up the anguish he’s dealing with early in the film as of God is trying to tell him something.
The sense of style that Scorsese presents is very evident as it includes a key scene of Jesus facing his temptations through various creatures including Satan in the form of a rising flame from the ground. The film would progress into these wonderful moments such as the small miracles Jesus would display but not do it in a grand way as Scorsese wants to maintain a simplicity of these miracles without really showing anything. The sense of style is evident in various key moments of the film such as the Last Supper and the Cleansing of the Temple scene. Notably in the way Scorsese frames the actors and the situation that is happening without explaining very much. The film’s crucifixion scene is very brutal but there is a restraint in the violence though the way the nail sounds piercing onto Jesus’ hands and foot do maintain its visceral tone that is quite unsettling.
The film’s third act following the crucifixion scene is very dream-like for the way Jesus sees the world as if he is about to live the life of a man with a family. Yet, it’s also quite surreal because it feels like it’s a dream-world where he would age like everyone else around him. It would lead to this very climatic ending that would reveal the world that Jesus has put himself upon while the film’s ending is truly powerful in what Jesus would do. Overall, Martin Scorsese creates a film that is more than just a marvel to watch but also provocative for the way he tells the life story of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.
Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus does a brilliant job with the film‘s evocative cinematography with its lush shots of the Moroccan skylines as well as the colorful scenery for many of the film‘s nighttime settings including some of its dark interiors. Ballhaus’ use of lights to play up the presence of God or Satan is very inspiring to create something that seems out of this world as Ballhaus’ work is truly amazing. Editor Thelma Schoonmaker does a superb job with the editing to emphasize a lot of stylish cuts to present the film as it includes rhythmic dissolves, jump-cuts, and quick-reaction cuts to play up the drama that occurs in the film. Notably as Schoonmaker maintains a very methodical pace to explore Jesus Christ’s journey in the course of its 164-minute running time.
Production designer John Beard, with set decorator Giorgio Desideri and art director Andrew Sanders, does great work with the set pieces from the palace that Jesus and his disciples embark on to the design of the crucifixes that Jesus would make early in the film. Costume designer Jean-Pierre Delifer does a fantastic job with the costumes from the robes that Jesus and his disciples wear to the more stylish robes of Mary Magdalene. Special effects supervisor Dino Galiano does amazing work with some of the film‘s key special effects such as the rising fire to the brief moment of water turning into red with its dust coloring. Sound editor Skip Lievsay does tremendous work with the sound from the way the voice-over narration is edited to the distortion of sounds to play up Jesus’ sense of fear towards God as well as the anguish he would feel in the world around him.
The film’s music by Peter Gabriel is a major highlight of the film for the way it plays out the drama in a very hypnotic yet eerie tone. Featuring vocal contributions from Youssou N’Dour and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the soundtrack is a mixture of ambient and world music that channels the world that Jesus Christ is surrounded. At times, it’s soothing but a lot of it is unsettling as a lot of the arrangements features blistering polyrhythms, brooding drone sounds, bits of guitar crashes, and all sorts of ethereal keyboards arrangements that add to the exotic nature of the film. Gabriel’s score is truly one of the most definitive film scores that really serves as a great introduction to world music.
The casting by Cis Corman is phenomenal for the ensemble that is created as it would feature voice work from Martin Scorsese as the lion, Illeana Douglas as a voice in the crowd, and Leo Marks as the voice of Satan. Other notable small performances include Irvin Kershner as a man who tries to stone Mary Magdalene to death, Peggy Gormley and Randy Danson in their respective roles of Martha and Mary of Bethany, Tomas Arana as the resurrected Lazarus, Roberts Blossom as an old man Jesus meets at a funeral, Verna Bloom as Jesus’ mother Mary, and Juliette Caton as a young girl claiming to be Jesus’ guardian angel. In the roles of Jesus’ disciples, there’s John Lurie, Leo Bermester, Paul Herman, Michael Been, Victor Argo, and Gary Basaraba as the men who follow Jesus while discussing their thoughts on faith to each other. Andre Gregory is excellent as John the Baptist who helps Jesus with his test on temptation while David Bowie is superb in a small but memorable performance as a calm Pontius Pilate.
Harry Dean Stanton is great in the role of Paul/Saul as a man who was once a killer and then later transforms into a man who claims to have been saved by Jesus. Barbara Hershey is wonderful as Mary Magdalene as a woman who becomes the object of lust for Jesus as she also tries to help him deal with his role. Harvey Keitel is astonishing as the troubled Judas Iscariot who tries to be Jesus’ one true friend though he is aware of what he will do as it’s a very complex performance from Keitel. Finally, there’s Willem Dafoe in an outstanding performance as Jesus Christ. Displaying the sense of anguish, confusion, and fear of a man dealing with his destiny. Dafoe brings a performance that is very engaging and chilling as it is definitely one-of-a-kind for the way he makes Jesus Christ into a very human figure.
The Last Temptation of Christ is an astonishing yet chilling film from Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader that features a tour-de-force performance from Willem Dafoe. While it’s not an easy film to watch as well as a film that doesn’t portray him as a romanticized figure. It’s a film that cannot be ignored as it raise questions on faith and doubt. Particularly as it refuses to peg Jesus Christ of Nazareth as anything than just some idea or a man as he’s a whole lot more than that. In the end, The Last Temptation of Christ is a marvelous yet haunting portrait of Jesus Christ told from one of cinema’s great masters in Martin Scorsese.
Martin Scorsese Films: (Who’s That Knocking at My Door?) - (Street Scenes) - Boxcar Bertha - (Mean Streets) - Italianamerican - Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore - Taxi Driver - New York, New York - American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince - (The Last Waltz) - Raging Bull - The King of Comedy - After Hours - The Color of Money - New York Stories-Life Lessons - Goodfellas - Cape Fear (1991 film) - (The Age of Innocence) - (A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies) - (Casino) - (Kundun) - (My Voyage to Italy) - Bringing Out the Dead - (The Blues-Feel Like Going Home) - Gangs of New York - (The Aviator (2004 film)) - No Direction Home - The Departed - Shine a Light - Shutter Island - (A Letter to Elia) - (Public Speaking) - George Harrison: Living in the Material World - Hugo - The Wolf of Wall Street - Silence (2016 film) - (The Irishman)
© thevoid99 2012
Remarkable review of a film that isn't nearly talked about enough among people of our generation. I am in desperate need of a new viewing, but I agree with most everything you said here. A ballsy, audacious feat from one of our finest auteurs.
It's a film that anyone that is interested in Jesus Christ should see. Not the manipulative shock bullshit that Mel Gibson provides. I want my money back for that film.
The only Scorsese film that is in the criterion collection,I remember some scenes but need to check it out again.
You did not like the Gibson film? I thought it received good reviews from critics.
@David-I saw The Passion when it came out and thought it was pretty good although I had issues with it.
Then I saw it again on TV and I began to dislike it even more. The violence really put me off. I like Mel Gibson but I really hate that film.
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