Film review: The Last Temptation Of Christ (1988)

There are several Martin Scorsese gangster films I don't care for due to bad language and violence, but this is one of his director efforts I like.

I think "The Last Temptation Of Christ" (TLTOC) is a very moving and powerful film. An intimate character study. I won't bore you with a summary. The controversy surrounding the subject matter may have helped the box office. TLTOC has in my opinion more depth than the to me overhyped "Passion of the Christ"(2004) (POTC). In POTC it seemed like the violence overshadows the substance.

Jesus Christ's (JC) inspiring story is one we seem never to get tired of, heck we endure it every Christmas, and so many films have been made over the subject.

The problem with making a JC film is that you can never satisfy everyone. The 100 % true story will never be know or told, as we can't go back in time.

Not sure I like the idea that executives are making money from selling JC's story, though. But if you said that about everything, you would never see any films about real people.

The bible is apparently the most successful bestseller ever, and Jesus and his disciple's are in that sense arguably the best communicators the world has ever seen. Jesus was famous for using allegories, and this timeless way of illustrating your message is obviously still a widely utilized tool today in different media, film or the written word.

The story is based on a book by Nikos Kazantzakis, which I haven't read. He also wrote "Zorba the Greek", which was turned into a film in the 1960s(I didn't like it).

Scorsese on the actors studio:
“his (Nikos Kazantzakis') take on it was interesting in that he (Christ) learns that he is Jesus, that he is divine, he learns by the end of the picture, and he has to suffer, as we all do in life, to many different degrees, and go through all the things we do. Kids say, if God is God and he dies on the cross, he’s God, he knows he’s going to live, so why is he suffering, he doesn’t have anything to suffer, he doesn’t understand us. Well that’s not the case, this one suffers from the very beginning and fights against it”

TLTOC is one of those films I feel like I can watch every few years. Even though it at times feels a little odd to see Tarantino actor Harvey Keitel, and David Bowie as Pontius Pilate! Perhaps better with mostly unknowns like in POTC.

TLTOC was rated #6 of the 25 most controversial movies of all time, but to me it's refreshing to see JC as a real person, who shows his weaknesses. Interesting to ponder if JC was happy to be elected by God as God's son. TLTOC implies that JC was not aware of the impact his story would have on people.

The film more or less claims that people wanted to believe JC came back from the dead, regardless if he did or not, as it gives them hope. Interesting comparison in this media gossip era when lies are told and a celebrity can't control anymore what is said about them. Here JC can't control what people are saying he is, but creating their own truth. JC as a concept is bigger than JC as a man.

In the 80s, the film was accused of blasphemy and causing offence to the church. But you could also look at it in another way. That it’s "resurrecting" interest in JC for our new visual generation, who seem not to read as much as past generations. Although the film may be too heavy, or not true enough to the bible for some.

Film critic Roger Ebert quoted in his review: “Those offended by the film object to the very notion that Jesus could have, or even imagine having, sexual intercourse. But of course Christianity teaches that the union of man and wife is one of the fundamental reasons God created human beings, and to imagine that the son of God, as a man, could not encompass such thoughts within his intelligence is itself a kind of insult.”

Scorsese: “Jesus lived in the world, he wasn’t in a temple, he wasn’t in a church, he was in the world, on the streets. (…) It raises a lot of questions. We just wanted to make him one of us, in a sense. (…) And the idea that if it’s a man, then he has to be afraid of dying.” Ebert: “And he has to be capable of lust.” Scorsese: And he has to be capable of everything. And what I thought was so great – so great – about Kazantzaki’s book was that the last temptation is not for riches or whatever; it’s just to live a life of a common man, to have a family, to die in bed and that sort of thing. It’s almost a love that he has for mankind, you see. The love he has for us. That’s the idea. And in order to die he has to know what we go through. If he doesn’t know what we go through, what good is God, you see”
“and then I was asked why I wanted to make this film, I replied, ‘so I can get to know Jesus better.’ In a way all my life I wanted to do that: first I was going to be a priest, but it didn’t work out. The idea of loving and forgiving one’s enemies seemed so obvious and Ghandi had shown that it could be put into practice”
“I know from a priest friend that the Kazantzaki’s book is used in seminaries, not as a substitute for the Gospel, but as a parable that is fresh and alive, which they can discuss and argue about. And this is what I hoped the film would do. I believe that Jesus is fully divine, but the teaching at the catholic schools placed such an emphasis on the divine side that if Jesus walked into a room, you’d know He was God because He glowed in the dark, instead of being just another person. But if He was like that, we always thought, then when the temptations came to Him, surely it was easy to resist them because He was God. He could reject the temptation of power in the desert; He could reject especially the temptation of sex; and He could undergo the suffering on the cross, because He knew what was going to happen, what death is all about.
Over the years I’ve drifted away from the Church, I’m no longer a practising Catholic, and I’ve questioned these things. Kazantzakis took the two natures of Jesus, and Paul Moore, the Episcopal Bishop of New York, explained to me that this was Christologically correct: the debate goes back to the Council of Chalcedon in 451, when they discussed how much of Jesus was divine, and how much was human, I found this an interesting idea, that the human nature of Jesus was fighting Him all the way to the line, because it can’t conceive of Him being God. I thought this would be great drama and force people to take Jesus seriously – at least to re-evaluate his teachings”
“All the religious movies I saw and loved as a kid, such as The Robe and Quo Vadis, were more spectacle and epic film-making than religion. (…) But I wanted the Jesus in my film to be more accessible, more immediate, and to engage the audience”

Scorsese on Scorsese: “I think everybody who worked on the film, and everybody who’s read the book over the years, feel’s it’s the first time you can really believe in this relationship – that Judas did not want to betray him, but had to go through with being God’s instrument for the sacrifice of Jesus. I also wondered, if Jesus is so forgiving and preaches love, why is Judas condemned to Hell by Him for committing suicide? While we’re not saying our version is the whole truth, it makes you question and maybe understand the concept of loving a little better”

Scorsese on Scorsese: Fundamentalists were armed with two early versions of the script by Paul Schrader – obtained, Scorsese suspects, from actors who had access to copies for auditions in 1983. The screenplay was of course some way removed from the final version (…) objected to the portrayal of Jesus as a weak and indecisive man, and in particular to the scene in the ‘last temptation’ dream sequence, in which Jesus makes love to Mary while being watched by an angel”
The evangelist Bill Bright offered to reimburse the cost of the film if the studio would hand it over for destruction.
Scorsese appeared on national television to say he would not make any changes to the film, and stressed it was a work of fiction, not a verse of the Gospels. A discussion programme about the film declared that it ‘will destroy Christianity’. In response to this Jack Valenti, president of the MPAA (the US movie ratings board), wondered how a single film could wreck someone’s faith.

In New York, extra security was needed, protesters assembled outside, the area was closed to traffic, and members of the audience had their bags searched after threats were issued to slash or spray-paint screens. Similar scenes of protest, accompanied by sell-out houses, occurred in other major cities in the US. On 26 August a screen was slashed and a print of the film stolen.
With the film finally released, Scorsese spoke out more in its defence, explaining how the Schrader script had been substantially altered. He emphasized again how the ‘last temptation' is not for Christ to have sex, but to get married, make love to his wife and have children like an ordinary man’.”

A minister wrote a letter to the New York daily news saying he loved the film, was going to use it as a study guide in discussion groups, and that he felt most of the people talking about the film had not seen it. “they have a great fear of anything that threatens their idea of Jesus, because deep down they feel very frightened they might revert to their original behaviour. So I would say to them, if they really feel they might be offended, stay away, but please allow others to see the film.

You could argue a weakness of the film is you wouldn’t want a 12-year-old watching the The Last Temptation of Christ and thinking it was an accurate life of Jesus.

If you just want the basic Jesus story, you may be better off with something else. In this film you learn about the burden and stress Jesus Christ might have endured. The films questions, did Jesus really want to be Jesus?

Readers, any thoughts on the film?



Scorsese on Scorsese (2003)
Scorsese by Ebert (2008)
The Actors Studio, Scorsese interview

(revised review)


  1. your going to go to hell for posting this. Just kidding nice post now I want to rewatch this, its been about 20 years since I have seen it.

  2. ha ha, thanks for reading, appreciate it, as it takes a fair amount of time wtiting these pieces.
    I feel the same, when I'm done writing my reviews, I feel like rewatching.


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