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.