The Last Temptation of Christ review by The Grim Ringler

Being irreligious, it’s hard to get caught up in the furor that so many religious films seem to create. When Last Temptation opened in the 1980s I remember there being protests, and long-winded speeches about how awful it was, and in the end, all of the controversy damned the film to a miserable box office and broke director Martin Scorsese’s heart. More than a decade later, I can see why the film might ‘cause some people to get a bit upset with some of the things in it, but that this film created so much hatred is mind-numbing as this is truly a beautiful, thoughtful, and brilliant fictional look at how Jesus of Nazareth became the man known as the Christ.

Jesus of Nazareth is a simple man. A carpenter who makes the crosses that the Romans use to nail criminals to as they are sunk into the earth of Golgotha. To his friends he is a sinner, a man that helps the enemy kill people that are of his faith, his blood, but to Jesus, he is doing the Lord’s work. But no one else can hear the voices in his head, or the footsteps that shadow his every move, or can feel the eyes of the Lord on him as he moves. He is a man tormented, doing the work of the enemy in the name of the Lord. Needing to find himself, he leaves for the desert and finds the very person he has been running from. Returning, knowing but hating that he is to be an instrument of God, Jesus begins seeking out others that will listen to what he has to tell them and who will believe what he has to say. The first to follow him is Judas, his best friend but greatest critic, who agrees to not kill Jesus (as he had been ordered to do by others that saw Jesus as a traitor) and to see what he can do. The first people Jesus happens upon are a mob about to stone Mary Magdalene, a whore that Jesus has come to love, though he knows he can never be with her. He saves her then, daring the mob to cast their stones if they feel that God shall see them as sinless and none accept his challenge and he leaves the scene with the mob following him. His first sermon doesn’t go as well as he had hoped though as his message of love is twisted into a call for action against the Romans and Jesus begins to question himself further. Is he the one that should lead these people when he doesn’t even know who he himself is? Judas though begrudgingly believes in him, as do a few others that are to become his apostles, and together they seek out the holy man John the Baptist to see if he might know who Jesus is. The Baptist, though skeptical at first, realizes that Jesus is the Son of God and is to become the messiah and refuses Jesus’ request for baptism but relents when Jesus insists. Later, while discussing how Jesus should best serve God and the two debate whether Love can save the world or whether it needs an ax to root out evil at its source. Finally, Jesus is told to seek out the God he fears and loves in the desert where He lives and Jesus agrees. Jesus creates a circle in the sand and refuses to leave until God speaks to him with a man’s voice. Three times Satan comes to him with temptations, each with a different form and a similar offer – let go of the Word of God and join Satan in the world of the living and prosper. Each time Jesus refuses, though each time is difficult as his resolve is slipping. Finally though Jesus hears the voice of God and is given an ax, and the time for action has come. Jesus returns from the desert and begins three days of war against Satan, curing the sick, healing the mad, and raising Lazarus, who has died. But still the world is suffering. Jesus takes his followers to the temple to pray and finds that it has become a marketplace filled with sin and self-worship, enraged, Jesus turns over table after table after table, refusing to accept what these people are doing in his father’s house. It is time for Jesus to act, to become the sacrifice his father wishes him to be. But Jesus is afraid, and this never clearer than when Jesus returns to the temple with a legion of followers who wish to tear the temple apart, but as soon as the Roman soldiers appear Jesus’ resolve falters and it becomes clear that God has not planned this as the way His son is meant to die, he is meant to die upon the cross. So Jesus falls into the arms of Judas and is taken away, the crowd hurling insults and anything they can get their hands upon at him. Jesus is to die upon the cross, and while Judas first refuses, Judas must be the one to betray his friend and Master and must tell the Romans where he is. First must come one final supper though so Jesus can say the last of what he needs. After the supper Jesus goes to where he has told Judas to send the Roman soldiers and awaits his fate, but while waiting, he begs God to release him, to have mercy and to let him go, that he doesn’t want what he has been offered. But there is no refusing this gift and so Jesus accepts his fate and is taken into custody and then to face the cross. While in custody Pontius Pilate attempts to find out what is so miraculous about this man Jesus but Jesus refuses to perform as an animal to him and in the end Pilate walks away saddened that Jesus and the Jews keep refusing to fight a system he feels will never change. In the jail the jailers torture and whip Jesus until he is scarred and bloody and then affix a crown made of thorns to his head and lead him out to face the public. As he takes his cross up the hill to Golgotha he is alone, his apostles having already fled, and now he must face his Father by himself. The crucifixion is unbearable and Jesus’ resolve falters as he cries out and asks his Father why he has forsaken him. Suddenly the sounds of the mob are gone and Jesus is all but alone now, a young girl who tells Jesus that she is his guardian angel, sent to take him from the cross and from his suffering – he is not the messiah as he had come to believe and he can finally live like a man and have a man’s life. And Jesus finds the life of Man a satisfying one as he marries and makes love with Mary Magdalene and lives an ordinary life. But as she is taken from him by death, his sorrow returns only to be sated by two other women who are, as his angel tells him, Mary with different faces. Jesus leads a long, good life, and has several children who shall slowly bring the kingdom of God generation by generation, but as he and his family are walking the streets he hears a man giving a sermon and is drawn to this man, and hearing him tell of Jesus’ death and resurrection, he is enraged as none of that ever happened. It’s all lies. But as the man tells Jesus, he doesn’t need Jesus to tell the tale, he just needs the tale itself. Suddenly Jesus isn’t so sure of the choice he has made, a feeling that is made all the more real when he is visited by his apostles as he lies on his death bed, Judas amongst the survivors and ashamed at what Jesus has done – forsaking his part to play in his father’s wishes and taking the path of Satan. And suddenly the little girl that was his angel shows its true self and Jesus is mortified and slowly crawls back to Golgotha to beg for his father’s forgiveness. And finally, back upon the cross “it is accomplished”.

Watching Last Temptation again I was struck by something I had never noticed before, that this is a love story. This is the story of Jesus’ love for Man, of Judas’ love for Jesus, and of God’s love for Jesus. Judas is not a villain here, he is a man that is doing as he was asked, as he was begged. No one here is without flaw or sin, and each person struggles to follow the path that God has set before them, as hard as it may become. He is serving the higher purpose. And the greatest achievement of the film, to me, is also the most controversial thing – it portrays Jesus not as a god but as a man. Jesus lusts, he wants, he hates, he regrets, he is a man like anyone else, and when he is asked by God to become a martyr, to become the messiah, he refuses. How can he, who has sinned, who is not perfect, become the leader of the nations of the world? How can he become the messiah? But in following the path to the cross Jesus realizes that he is meant to become the messiah because he is human, not in spite of that fact. Who better to love Man, to serve Man, and to sacrifice for Man than one that has been one?

The acting is wonderful and Willem DeFoe as Jesus is amazing. Tortured and full of doubt, this is a man who loves too much and feels the world’s pain and is willing to give himself to forces he cannot even quite understand. Harvey Keitel as Judas is a bit over the top at times but he creates a very real person and one which is not a betrayer but who loves Jesus enough to betray him. The filmmaking is exceptional as well, Scorsese letting the film take its time to develop and allowing letting screenwriter Paul Schrader's script to play out. The film moves very slowly, and towards the end feels a bit long, but it is shot beautifully and creates a truly moving world. And while the scenes of Jesus’ scourging are awful to see, never does Scorsese take a morbid delight in showing it, making us see enough to understand what he sacrificed but not making the scenes fetishistic.

The film is too long though, and you feel that length. The extended ending with Jesus being shown what his life could be if he chose to be a Man is brilliant and important, but it slows down the film and almost de-rails it. And some of the scenes are very over the top, the direction not helping much either, such as when you can hear Jesus’ thoughts as he wonders to himself who it is who keeps following him and speaking to him. But for all the flaws, and there are others, the heart of the film is true.

The DVD is the typical top-notch job by Criterion and the print is beautiful and all but flawless. The scenes of Jesus on the cross are as breathtaking as they are heart wrenching. The 5.1 sound is very well realized and feels like an honest work and not forced. The extras include a commentary from Scorsese and Schrader, extensive research material, galleries, interviews with composer Peter Gabriel, among other bits and bobbles.

Even as someone that is not in the least bit religious I got a lot out of this incredible film. It’s hard to deny the power that this story holds and this re-telling and re-examination is the best I have seen. Jesus is a man in this film, a man that would become a messiah but who had to first believe in himself, a thing that isn’t made any easier with the knowledge that God is your father. As a religious film, this is a very different, very real portrait of Jesus becoming Christ. As a film about faith and belief, it’s about as good as it gets. Brilliant and misunderstood masterpiece.


8 out of 10 Jackasses
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