• The Last Temptation of Christ: Passion Project

    By David Ehrenstein


    In the becalmed atmosphere of today’s Hollywood, it’s hard to imagine the tumult that greeted The Last Temptation of Christ when it was released in 1988. Brilliantly directed by Martin Scorsese, this adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s imaginative retelling of the life of Christ is, without question, one of the most serious, literate, complex, and deeply felt religious films ever made. Unfortunately, serious discussion of it has often been blocked by a yowling mob of right-wing zealots.

    Kazantzakis’s novel had long fascinated Scorsese, who saw in it an opportunity to create a religious epic like no other, a “Passion project” if ever there was one. Written in 1951, The Last Temptation of Christ, according to its author, shows that the “part of Christ’s nature which was profoundly human helps us to understand and love him and to pursue his passion as though it were our own. If he had not within him this warm human element, he would never be able to touch our hearts with such assurance and tenderness; he would not be able to become a model for our lives.” And so instead of dealing with Christ as a remote icon, Scorsese’s film would explore what it meant for him to be fully human as well as divine—as the Gospels say it was Jesus’ unique condition to be. With this humanization as the central focus, other familiar figures from the story—particularly Judas and Mary Magdalene—could be seen in a fresh dramatic light.

    As for the work’s title, the “temptation” is simply that to be only human—to forgo divinity and martyrdom in exchange for a normal life. Clearly, those wed to a literal inter­pretation of Scripture would take issue with this notion. But what Scorsese hoped was that they would do so after granting his film the sort of serious consideration given the likes of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Roberto Rossellini’s The Flowers of St. Francis (1950), Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951), and above all Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)—another film that shook the moviegoing world by removing all the fancy trappings of the Hollywood religious epic to tell Jesus’ story in as simple and unadorned a way as possible.

    Simplicity was out in 1980s Holly­wood. And so was seriousness. But Scorsese had established an unparalleled reputation with such modern classics as 1976’s Taxi Driver and 1980’s Raging Bull, and the industry “owed Marty one.” So he began to put the film into production in 1983, for Paramount Pictures. Budgeted at fifteen to twenty million dollars, this version of The Last Temptation of Christ would have starred Aidan Quinn as Jesus, with Harvey Keitel as Judas, Barbara Hershey as Mary Magdalene, and Sting as Pontius Pilate. But weeks before shooting was to begin, the project was canceled, at least in part as a result of a letter-writing cam­paign engineered by fundamentalist Christian groups. They claimed that the film would portray Christ as a homosexual—though such a notion figured in neither the Kazantzakis novel nor the film Scorsese planned. Unbowed, Scorsese persevered, even­tually mak­ing The Last Temptation of Christ at Universal Pictures four years later (for an estimated six to eight million dollars), with Willem Dafoe as Christ, David Bowie as Pilate, and Keitel and Hershey in the parts for which they were originally cast. All things considered, production went well. Then the trouble really started.

    By that time, the hysterical fantasies of a few had given way to the well-orchestrated campaign of a larger and more sinister consortium. Fueled by half-truths, outright lies, and anti-Semitic slurs, this cam­paign demanded nothing less than The Last Temptation of Christ’s total destruction. Spearheaded by Tim Penland of Mastermedia and Bill Bright of the Campus Crusade for Christ, an ad hoc committee of self-styled fundamentalist leaders declared that a film none of them had actually seen depicted “a mentally deranged, lust-driven man who, in a dream sequence, comes down off the cross and has a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene.” If Universal would not burn the negative, they offered to buy it and destroy it themselves.

    Right on cue, those TV-savvy right-wing reverends Jerry Falwell and Donald Wildmon joined the chorus of disapproval, along with the three Pats—Robertson, Buchanan, and Boone. Though they hadn’t seen the film either, they were far from disinclined to discuss it. Likewise, director Franco Zeffirelli withdrew his Young Toscanini from the Venice Film Festival when he learned that The Last Temptation of Christ—which he described, also sight unseen, as “truly horrible and completely deranged”—had been invited there for a screen­ing. In this, he was little different from the Roman Catholic archbishop of Los Angeles, Roger Mahony, who, also without seeing the film, deemed it “morally offensive.”

    Still, the archbishop made a point of distancing himself from the pro­tests of the Reverend H. L. Hymers, who staged a rally in front of the home of Lew Wasserman, then chairman of MCA, the parent company of Uni­ver­sal Pictures, that became so raucous as to require police intervention. Carrying placards proclaiming, “Wasserman Fans Anti-Semitism,” this minister and his flock proceeded to provide the fanning, chanting to all who’d listen that Jewish money was behind The Last Temptation of Christ. It was an outpouring of anti-Semitic rage remindful of the one that had led to the lynching of Atlanta factory superintendent Leo Frank in 1915. Happily, Wasserman wasn’t harmed.

    Had the Reverend Hymers been a bit more attentive to detail, he would have been aware that Kazantzakis was of the Greek Orthodox faith; that Paul Schrader, who wrote the screenplay, was raised as a Calvinist; and that Martin Scorsese was raised as a Roman Catholic (he even contemplated the priesthood in his youth). And cast and crew were of various religions or none at all. But then, Hymers hadn’t seen the film either. And why should he, or any of The Last Temptation of Christ’s foes, want to confuse themselves with the facts?

    Rather than a “blasphemous” attack on Christ’s divinity that climaxes with a salacious sex scene, The Last Temptation of Christ is a stirring affirmation of faith both in the person of Jesus and in his teachings. This affirmation is unorthodox only in that the film presents divinity not as a given but rather as a process Christ explores through his humanity.

    We first meet Jesus as a grown man—frail and terrified. Troubled by crippling headaches and mystical visions, he’s well aware that he isn’t like ordinary men but is uncertain about what the future has in store for him. He sees himself as a sinner, for while he’s resisted sin, he feels he’s done so out of cowardice. He takes personal responsibility for the fact that Mary Magdalene has become a prostitute, blaming himself for not having married her and provided a normal life.
    His friend Judas is convinced that Jesus’ future is in politics—as the man who will lead the Jews in revolt against their Roman captors. But after meditating in the desert, Jesus comes to a different realization about his destiny. Slowly gathering about him the group of men and women who will become his disciples, he begins to preach.

    “I’ll just open my mouth, and God will do the talking,” he says at first. Later, as he gains conviction, he talks both of love and of “the sword.” Finally, he comes to realize that his purpose on earth is to be the “lamb of God,” sacrificing himself on the cross. He urges Judas to betray him in order to accomplish this mission. And it is on the cross that he faces his “last temptation.”

    Looking down, Jesus sees a beautiful little girl who claims to be an angel of the Lord. She tells him his sufferings are over and that he doesn’t have to go through with the crucifixion. It is only a test, like God’s telling Abraham to kill his son Isaac. Taking him to a verdant valley, the girl presents him to Mary Magdalene for marriage. They have children. When Magdalene later dies, Jesus continues living a quiet life with Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus, the man he raised from the dead. “There’s only one woman in the world,” the girl tells him, meaning that all women are one. He fathers more children with the sisters and lives to a ripe old age. But on Jesus’ deathbed, an angry Judas confronts him. He tells him he’s missed his calling by not being crucified. And he reveals that the angelic-looking girl is, in fact, the devil. Realizing the truth, Jesus recommits himself to God—and finds himself back on the cross. In truth, he’s been there all along. The “last temptation” took place in a flash, between his questioning why God had “forsaken him” and his last declaration, that “it is accomplished.” It is in this final moment that Christ’s divinity is fully revealed.

    All of this, needless to say, meant nothing to the film’s enemies, who used it as little more than a ploy to regain ground lost in the wake of the Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart money and sex scandals. In the days since The Last Temptation of Christ, that political capital has only grown, giving rise to a powerful reactionary lobby within the Republican Party that calls itself Christian while harboring beliefs and attitudes that are more political than spiritual. Moreover, in 2004, Scorsese’s detractors got a film of their own, Mel Gibson’s independently financed and distributed The Passion of the Christ. Like The Last Temptation of Christ, it isn’t based on the Gospels; its source is The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, an account of the ravings of the anti-Semitic nun Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774–1824), who was once proposed for sainthood by the most right-wing elements of the Catholic church (with whom Gibson and his father sympathize) but ultimately passed over, as cooler clerical heads prevailed. Called by critic Roger Ebert “the most violent film I have ever seen,” The Passion of the Christ is a sadomasochistic Passion play, replete with a portrayal of the Jews as a demonic force in league with Satan. Marketed to a target audience of fundamentalist anti-Semites, it was a hit.

    It’s unlikely that Gibson’s film will stand the test of time. Scorsese’s film has done so beautifully, allowing us to contemplate—in reasoned calm at last—the power and the glory of The Last Temptation of Christ.

    David Ehrenstein has been writing film criticism for thirty years, for such publications as Film Comment, the Los Angeles Times, Cahiers du cinéma, and Film Quarterly. He is the author of The Scorsese Picture: The Art and Life of Martin Scorsese. This piece has been updated from the one included with the Criterion Collection’s 2000 edition of The Last Temptation of Christ.


  • By Nick Castronuova
    March 13, 2012
    08:03 PM

    this 'essay' comes off more like a bunch of emotional grumblings and cheap pot shots at people (Falwell, Hymers, etc) who barely deserve the time it takes to write their names. Then to compare it to another film about the life of Christ seems moot and pointless. The rest comes off as a plot synopsis more than anything else, in an attempt to justify a film that no longer needs justification. Surely there has to be a better essay on The Last Temptation than this?
    • By MA
      March 13, 2012
      09:40 PM

      Agreed. Extremely disappointed. Uninspired from beginning to end, but the part about Gibson's film is too low to be believed. I don't see why there must always be an essay, but if that is the case Criterion is in great need of quality control.
    • By Joel
      March 14, 2012
      05:17 PM

      I concur. I thought the article was a little more than tinged with a level of vitriol bordering on the absurd. I am a Christian myself and I thoroughly enjoyed The Last Temptation, though not as much as Pasolini's Gospel According to St. Matthew. And, of course, I have seen Mel Gibson's take, about which I believe Quentin Tarantino was quoted as saying, "...one of the most brilliant visual storytelling movies I’ve seen since the talkies." Ehrenstein's conjecture that The Passion "will not stand the test of time" is pointless. It would have been nicer if he went deeper into the "passion" that drove Scorcese to make his film. Perhaps Ehrenstein had an unhappy religious upbringing?
  • By Mash
    March 13, 2012
    09:47 PM

    So people who persecuted him won't be highlighted unlike last time when mob went after Mel who told actual story.
  • By Criteriophile
    March 14, 2012
    09:39 AM

    I can not believe that Criterion allowed such a diatribe of another artist's work to appear on-line. Am I incorrect in assuming that this disappointing essay is part of the usually inspired and thought-provoking literature that accompanies each DVD/Blu-Ray?
  • By Jeff Heise
    March 14, 2012
    03:52 PM

    Ehrenstein puts it beautifully about the overheated, overblown and hysterical comments and actions about Scorsese's masterpiece. I remember waiting in line at the Cineplex Odeon theater in Century City opening night with hundreds of people waiting to see the film. The media was there in droves along with protesters and supporters, and due to the huge crowds, the film was running late but no one left. While waiting in line a camera crew was making its way down the queue, stopping every once in a while to ask questions to ticket holders. I noticed that the interviews were very brief and after a while the word reached us that it was a fundamentalist group asking us why we were seeing such a hateful film about Christ and religion. I also noticed that a lot of people were hiding their faces-both ticket holders and the crew. When they got to me I made sure that I was not obscured and when the "documentarian" asked me "Why are you coming to see a movie made by an atheist about our beloved lord that only tells lies?" I asked them if they had seen it. They said no-they would never see something so full of lies and hatred. I then told them to shut up and get their camera the f*** out of my face if they were such wussies to lie about something they were too scared to see. I got many a pat on the back and handshake for that. I think the essay was beautifully written and I plan on getting the Blu-Ray as soon as I can.
    • By John
      May 04, 2012
      02:45 PM

      Thanks for your comment Mrs. Ehrenstein!
  • By Jonathan
    March 14, 2012
    09:09 PM

    I don't think the point of this essay was to be some kind of genius masterpiece in the world of criticism, just a simple explanation of the movie and the controversy surrounding it. I, for one, appreciated it and it filled in some gaps for me. For example, it had never occurred to me that it would make perfect sense that due to the Bakker and Swaggart scandals at the time, this is a bandwagon that the rest of the Christian right could jump on in order to distance themselves. I love sharing my history with this movie with people- it played a seminal role in my religious life. I was 12 yrs old when it came out, and my Jr High Youth Group at church in Indianapolis went to the protests at the movie theaters and took part. I was one of the kids trying to hand out pamphlets and discourage others from seeing it. Of course, I had no idea what I was doing considering how young I was, but if my youth leaders were telling me that this was a horrible, sinful movie, then I took them at their word. Four years later, I was at boarding school and we went into town once a week where I would spend my time in the bookstore. It was there that I saw Kazantzakis' book, and thought, "oh, this is that sinful book that the sinful movie is based on." But, I read it, and it was FASCINATING. I couldn't understand the problem that my church had with it. So I saw the movie. Same reaction. I thought our church could benefit from looking at the story in this way- it made me think a lot of things about the Jesus story that had never really occurred to me before, (and believe me, after 10 years in a diehard Christian church, we ALL think we know everything there is to know about Jesus, haha...). In conjunction with a few other religious issues I was dealing with at the time, (being at boarding school with people from all over the world was broadening my horizons and making me think twice about what I had been taught about other religions), I found myself questioning, for the first time, everything I had been taught about Jesus and Christianity in general. It was thanks to this movie/book that I began to separate my individual beliefs from those of my church, and I will always be grateful.
  • By Andrew Campbell
    March 16, 2012
    12:39 PM

    Wow. "Marketed to a target audience of fundamentalist anti-Semites"? That's a bald-faced dishonesty, with nothing to back it up. I admire Scorsese's work and haven't ever seen Gibson's, but describing my friends who bought tickets to the latter as "anti-Semites" is not only hateful, but inaccurate. The "fundamentalists" of whom he speaks are some of Israel's most passionate defenders and, if anything, philio-Semite.
  • By MarkVH
    March 16, 2012
    02:03 PM

    "Called by critic Roger Ebert “the most violent film I have ever seen,” The Passion of the Christ is a sadomasochistic Passion play, replete with a portrayal of the Jews as a demonic force in league with Satan." David, you fail to mention that Ebert gave it four stars and, in an update to the piece, notes that "This is not a criticism but an observation; the film is unsuitable for younger viewers, but works powerfully for those who can endure it." I haven't seen the film (I have seen Last Temptation multiple times and admire it greatly), but in this case it seems that context should be noted.
  • By David K.
    March 23, 2012
    06:59 PM

    Not to attack Ehrenstein, but I actually enjoyed this piece much more in its original form, before it was "updated". The original piece was written many years ago, long before the Gibson film was even made. There has been a real divide in America over the past decade. Right vs. left AND left vs. right, and both often have a SERIOUS attitude with each other. It becomes that, if you are right-wing, you love the Gibson film and condemn tha Scorsese film. If you are left wing, you either A) love the Scorsese film but hate the Gibson film, or B) you hate both films because it's cooler to be an atheist. I feel Ehrenstein was saying, "Those right wingers picked on Scorsese's film, yet they love THIS." And then attacked Gibson's film. I remember some Christians that loved Gibson's film decrying Scorsese for all the people that didn't like the Gibson film. This is absurd. I think BOTH films, in very different ways, are excellent works of cinema. Not because they are a religious experience, but because they are very well-made films. I think both sides overstate the alleged "offensive" content of each film. I don't think Scorsese's intent was to make an unflattering portrait of Christ, and I don't think Gibson was intending to incite hate for Jews, either. For the record, I am not a big religious person, but I am still fascinated by it. I do however, love cinema of all types. And I think those are both some great, visceral, challenging films.
  • By Shaun Pearson
    March 24, 2012
    11:36 PM

    I think some of you need to turn off your computers, put on your shoes, and take a stroll in the park to relax. The author is placing the film in its time - many readers may not have even been born when the film was released. I remember the storm and the detractors were ignorant and not a little deplorable. Ehrenstein happens to have picked a side - so what? One of you called this a diatribe - I find it funny that that was meant as a criticism.
    • By David K.
      March 26, 2012
      07:35 PM

      Oh, I remember the time clearly. I was frisked by cops to see "The Last Temptation of Christ" in the theater. The controversy was UNREAL. I don't think people object to his defense of the film ( I defend it to the death), or to his putting it into the context of its time (which IS what his ORIGINAL version of this article did). I think it was his arbitrary attack on Gibson's film, which was made SIXTEEN years after Scorsese's film, that some people took offense to. It is as though he is doing to Gibson and "Passion" what the opponents of "Last Temptation" did to it when it came out. Which is, A) overstating the alleged "Offensive" content, and B) saying "If we don't like it, it is wrong, and shouldn't BE".
  • By George Hamburger
    March 26, 2012
    08:24 AM

    hey why doesn't criterion go and do some woody allen? they did annie hall and crimes and misdemeanors when they were doing laserdiscs, and the since the dvd and subsequent blu ray releases are zilch when it comes to extras why not? MGM continues to let them release their films so why not Annie Hall, Manhattan or even Bananas or something obscure like Alice or Another Woman? COME ON, CRITERION!
    • By Matthew
      October 27, 2012
      10:29 AM

      What does this comment have to do with The Last Temptation of Christ?
  • By Kaare_K
    July 26, 2013
    03:40 PM

    I just purchased this Blu Ray yesterday and read the essay last night. As a conservative Christian (but far from a wacko right-winger) I love this film. I feel that if more Christians would sit down and watch "Last Temptation" they would grow stronger in their faith and their relationship with Christ. I also agree with Nick Castronuova who posted above that Mr. Ehrenstein's essay comes off as being more about gripes he has about those that protested the film. He then goes on to blast conservative Christians who rallied around Gibson's "Passion of the Christ," which is a bit of a cheap shot. He also quoted the late Mr. Roger Ebert's review where he writes that "The Passion" is "the most violent movie I've ever seen." Mr. Ehrenstein conveniently leaves out that Mr. Ebert gave Gibson's film a 4-star review hailing it as a great, epic film and compairing if favorably alongside Mr. Scorsese's film. This is the first time I've ever found myself irritated reading one of Criterion's essay. It's a good thing that this is an amazing film - haha!
  • By M_Mayer
    December 01, 2013
    12:57 PM

    This essay gets fairly crass from where Ehrenstein writes "Marketed to a target audience of fundamentalist anti-Semites, it was a hit" --other than that, he writes a good, fleshed-out essay
  • By William
    July 15, 2014
    09:40 PM

    The author doesn't have issues with religious zealots - he apparently is one himself. He seems most animated by his opinion that the religious views depicted in Gibson's film do not align with his own. What a hack. What little there was about the film itself is full of conclusory statements and zero analysis or insight. You're critiquing one of the most "deeply felt religious films ever made" but say utterly nothing about what makes it so? Setting aside the author's religious bigotry, this was so poorly written I wonder how it got on Criterion's website.