Monday, April 19, 2021

Movie Review: "The Last Temptation of Christ" (1988)

The Last Temptation of Christ

Director: Martin Scorsese

Producer: Barbara De Fina

Screenplay: Paul Schrader

Based on: "The Last Temptation of Christ" by Nikos Kazantzakis

Cinematographer: Michael Ballhaus

Music: Peter Gabriel

Starring: Willem Dafoe as Jesus

Production company: Cineplex Odeon Films

Country: United States

Initial release: August 12, 1988

Run Time: 163 minutes

The Last Temptation of Christ is a 1988 film directed by Martin Scorsese that was adapted from Nikos Kazantzakis' controversial 1955 novel The Last Temptation of Christ, shot entirely in Morocco. Although a box office failure, it received positive reviews from critics and some religious leaders, and Scorsese received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Director. Barbara Hershey's performance as Mary Magdalene earned her a nomination for the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress. Peter Gabriel's music score also received acclaim, including a nomination for the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score. Dafoe's performance was praised, with some thinking he should have been nominated for Best Actor. However, Harvey Keitel's performance was not well received and he was nominated for Worst Supporting Actor.

The film depicts the life of Jesus Christ and his struggle with various forms of temptation including fear, doubt, depression, reluctance and lust. This results in the book and film depicting Christ being tempted by imagining himself engaged in sexual activities, a notion that has caused outrage from some Christians. The film includes a disclaimer stating "This film is not based on the Gospels, but upon the fictional exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict."

Here is my own evolution with this film. When it was released in 1988, I was twelve years old, and my father asked me if I wanted to go see it in the theater with him, but my mother heard about all the controversy and protest surrounding the film, so she convinced my father to not go see it lest violence erupt, as it indeed did in some showings and there were plenty of threats. I didn't see the film till I rented it at a video store when I was around seventeen, which I later learned was pretty rare since most video stores refused to carry it, and I immediately hated it mainly because in my view it depicted Jesus as a moron and a lunatic and it seemed to be intentionally blasphemous. When I was in college I was talking with a young woman from Greece who was a pious Orthodox Christian, and who had a keen interest and was very well read in modern Greek literature, about Kazantzakis especially focused on the movie The Last Temptation of Christ. After expressing my feelings about it, she looked at me and with a serious tone she asked if I had read the book. When I told her I had not, then she said I should and it will give me a whole new perspective on it. When I asked to sum up what new take I would have from reading the book, she told me that basically I would understand that it is about the human struggle between the flesh and the spirit, good and evil, knowledge and ignorance, darkness and light, and the life of Christ was used by Kazantzakis as the medium to express this struggle we all have.

Since that time I have read the book, but I have attempted to watch the film with a more open mind to its original intention on two occasions, the first before I read it and the second after. The first rewatch was about twenty years ago, and this time I was able to appreciate the good filmmaking of the director and I could see the intention to depict a more human struggle in Jesus was not meant to be blasphemous, though I was still repulsed by the extremes it goes to in order to depict this struggle. Upon my second viewing this past week I was able to more clearly see Kazantzakis' intention, and I didn't find it as loathsome as I used to. This was because the film clearly makes no attempt to portray an accurate account of the life of Jesus and deliberately makes stories up to show that it is not attempting to even redefine who Jesus is. Instead, Jesus is clearly being used as a medium to relay another message, sort of like what Jesus Christ Superstar does, but without its much superior music. In fact, this time around I saw The Last Temptation of Christ as I view two movies I adore but are entirely fictionalized accounts of very real historical events: Inherit the Wind and The Crucible, both of which were made to critique McCarthyism. However, though I love the latter two films while knowing they mythologize and rewrite important historical events to get another message across, I'm internally split if this should be done at all, because the deeper message is often not understood by general audiences and the real historical events become corrupted and confused with the myth. It is this same internal struggle I now feel about The Last Temptation of Christ. Can such an attempt to rewrite history for the sake of emphasizing one's personal message be justified? The more I think about it, the more I come to the conclusion that it is unjustified, irresponsible and silly. Moreover, if some significant event happened in my life, I would not want some author to use my name and my story to express his own personal ideas about something, even if that author has the right intentions and offers somewhat of a good message.

With all this being said, these last two paragraphs do reveal one significant thing: The Last Temptation of Christ is a movie that makes you react and think. My own evolution with the film proves it, and it sort of mirrors my own personal evolution. The Last Temptation of Christ is a book and film that will now always exist and it will demand a response from us. Few can see it and be indifferent to it. Most Christians will try to dismiss it and abhor it. I pity the Christian who will see it as a wonderful and accurate depiction of the life of Jesus. Both however will miss the point. What is the point, you ask? The best way to explain it is to watch the movie again, if you so desire, but this time at least read the Prologue Kazantzakis wrote before you watch it, then it will challenge you to see it the way he wants you to see it, and from there you can take issue with it or not. Among the things Kazantzakis wrote was the following:

This book was written because I wanted to offer a supreme model to the man who struggles; I wanted to show him that he must not fear pain, temptation or death - because all three can be conquered, all three have already been conquered. Christ suffered pain, and since then pain has been sanctified. Temptation was fought until the very last moment to lead him astray, and Temptation was defeated. Christ died on the Cross, and at that instant death was vanquished for ever.

Every obstacle in his journey became a milestone, an occasion for further triumph. We have a model in front of us now, a model who blazes our trail and gives us strength.

This book is not a biography, it is the confession of every man who struggles. In publishing it I have fulfilled my duty, the duty of a person who struggled much, was much embittered in his life, and had many hopes. I am certain that every free man who reads this book, so filled as it is with love, will more than ever before, better than ever before, love Christ.

What we come to understand is The Last Temptation of Christ, though offered by the author to all who struggle, is in fact a depiction and confession of the struggles of Kazantzakis himself, at his own spiritual level, and by writing it he connected with Jesus on a level he had never before had. Yes, it has its flaws, but it is the confession of a flawed individual trying to understand and find union with Christ. He is doing it on his own terms, with a leaning towards pantheism, at least at this stage in his life, without the guidance of the Greek Orthodox Church. When you read the book and see the film through this perspective, you can have at least some respect and appreciation for it, no matter how blasphemous and heretical it may seem.

Taking all this into consideration, I rate The Last Temptation of Christ a 6.7 out of 10.