By John H. Foote
18. THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988)
Early screenings of Martin Scorsese’s long delayed adaptation of The Last Temptation of Christ virtually forced the studio to cancel the film’s inclusion at The Festival of Festivals in Toronto, before being renamed the Toronto International Film Festival, and release the film ahead of time in August of 1988. Dumped in the dog days of summer, when the blockbusters had started to ease back on their earning, the film was an immediate success, landing covers on TIME and Newsweek, and Maclean’s in Canada. It was the single most discussed film of the year in those weeks in August, and a small hit at the box office. Scorsese was seen on 60 Minutes defending his film, as well as the rest of the major American networks and interviews appeared in the major dailies. Martin Scorsese knew he needed the backing of the critics, and for the most part he got it. Having arranged screenings for critics and major religious leaders, the cause of the backlash and outcry against the film was a 45-minute hallucination sequence in which, tempted by a beautiful angel, Christ comes off the cross to live his life as an ordinary man. He marries, father’s children, his wife dies, he marries again, fathers more children and grows old, before being confronted by Judas who shows him the young angel for what she really is, the devil.
Religious leaders lost their collective minds over this scene, clearly invented and not at all part of the Holy Scriptures, but let’s be clear, the film was based on a work of fiction, written by Greek writer Nikos Kazantakis. This was not based on the Bible, though events were certainly drawn from the Bible, and Scorsese made that abundantly clear at the beginning of the film!
This was the first film that presented Christ as just a man, perhaps the son of God, perhaps not, but for sure a man. He is terrified of the voices he hears and what they whisper to him, just as he is frightened of what they are telling him he must do. As portrayed by Willem Dafoe, this is a conflicted Christ, a man who will fear intense pain in being crucified, but does it compare with the pain he is feeling emotionally?
Martin Scorsese, arguably the greatest modern filmmaker, had been trying to get this made for 15 years, since being gifted the book in the seventies by actress Barbra Hershey. After stunning audiences and critics with Taxi Driver (1976) and the searing Raging Bull (1980), he was regarded as an artist, but his films did not make a lot of money. The King of Comedy (1983) continued that tradition, as did After Hours (1985) but The Color of Money (1986) made a great deal of money, and won Paul Newman an Oscar for Best Actor, finally, which raised Scorsese’s stock and allowing him to return to the thought of making his dream project (though he had a few). At one point it had been set to go with Robert De Niro as Jesus, but funding disappeared, and a year later he was set again with Aidan Quinn this time as Jesus, but again, money dried up when theatres threatened not to screen the picture.
Finally Garth Drabinsky of Cineplex Odeon made the deal for a paltry, tiny budget of $7 million dollars. Think about that, a $7 million dollar budget to make a film set in the ancient Biblical city of Jerusalem, one of the world’s oldest cities, and thought to be the home to Christianity. The entire budget of the special effects film Die Hard (1988) was $28 million dollars, while Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) cost in excess of $50 million, but Scorsese, for his Biblical epic had just $7 million dollars. Incredibly he got around it, and the film looked like a massive, big budget picture, with glorious cinematography and superb scoring and editing. Best of all were the performances, Dafoe in particular who gave Christ heart and soul, and was surrounded by solid New York character actors. No effort was made to disguise the heavy New York accents, which gave the film a gritty honesty, it did not matter, we understood the story they were telling. Dafoe proved to be an inspired choice as Jesus, and Scorsese was true to his word in casting Hershey as he had promised years earlier.
The film opens with Jesus building crosses for the Romans to be used to crucify his people, an extraordinary irony. Tortured by voices, thinking himself mad, he finally comes to understand that God is speaking to him directly, that he truly is the Son of God. Though he never really gets over the staggering responsibility of being the Son of God, he does accept who he is. Judas (Harvey Keitel) doubts him at first but goes with him into the desert to gather the men to go with him, his disciples. As they come together, Christ speaks to them of God, of paradise, of their duty as men and what they owe their world. Rome is watching when he begins speaking to the masses that gather to listen to him, and the Jewish elders report him to the Roman leaders who, rather than recognize him as the Messiah, will eventually turn him over to the Romans.
Jesus encounters John the Baptist in the desert, dressed in animal hides, filthy, but imbued with the Holy Spirit, and is baptized, before we see Jesus curing a huge group of the ill and deranged. Befriending the prostitute Mary Magdalene, he saves her when the angry mob rises up against her and waits to speak with her on a long line of men having sex with her. His friendship with her is not at all popular, but he refuses to break from her and she follows him. Left exhausted from healing, from raising Lazarus, they carry on to the city of Jerusalem, where his coming is awaited and celebrated. Though initially terrified at who he is and what to do, he grows into the position, boldly speaking about love, about his father, seeming to unite the people.
Yet the elders conspire against him and he is soon in front of Pilate (David Bowie) in a horse stable, being tried, more or less as the Roman leader grooms his horse. Very casually, a matter-of-fact bluntness about him, Pilate tells him, “You know what happens now” and asks Christ to tell his people to visit the thousands of skulls on Golgotha.
Beaten, tortured, a heavy cross beam is place on his shoulders to carry on the long path to Golgotha, where the rest of the cross awaits. Huge spikes are hammered into his wrists and feet, a crown of thorns was slammed onto his head in the cell before the long walk to the place of execution began. Dripping blood, in obvious pain, he is lifted into the air, and the cross slams into the ground. On either side of him are two thieves, one taunting him to save them, the other asking for a place in paradise. On the ground his followers weep, while the Romans wait impatiently for him to die. But suddenly as Christ looks out and down from the cross, the noise disappears, silence bathes the air, and a beautiful golden-haired child is at the base of the cross. She is stunning, with golden curls and a startling face of purity, mature for her age, wise and a shocking beauty. She speaks with Jesus, asking him if he wants to live his life as just a man, and he answers, yes. Floating into the air, she gently removes the spikes in his hands and feet, kisses the bloody wounds, and they walk away from Golgotha towards his life.
Christ marries Mary Magdalene, consummates the marriage with her, she dies, and he marries another, they stay together, she bears him children and Christ grows old. One night into his home storms Judas, raging that Christ has failed them, and he shows the child angel for what she is, the devil himself offering one last temptation. Crawling from his death bed, Christ makes his way outside where he raises his hands to the heavens and asks to be taken back to the cross, where he will live out his minutes, and saying “It is accomplished” bows his head and dies.
The bells of Peter Gabriel’s magnificent, but spiky score fill the track with a blinding light, and the film ends with hope, with searing beauty.
I first saw the film in 1988, the day after opening in Toronto. I was not yet a film critic professionally, but had already been filling notebooks with reviews for years. My girl, who would become my wife, Sherri and I stood in line outside the Carlton Cinemas on College Street on Toronto for a matinee. Outside there were people protesting the film, their placards and picket signs held high. One of them accosted us asking us why we wanted to see such “trash”. Without hesitation I asked him why he thought it was trash, what in it had so offended him? He replied that he had not seen the film, which at once lost him any credibility he might have had with us, telling me his church told him it was terrible. I asked him if he believed in blind faith. He said he did. I countered with “do you know how many people have died because of blind faith?” He started to reply, and I suggested he move away from us. He did.
More than two hours later Sherri and I emerged from the cinema into the cool night air of the summer, stunned by the experience we had just had in the theatre. I am not terribly religious, the whole God and Heaven thing I have never bought. But Christ is a different matter, we know he existed, and I do believe in his teachings. Was he the Son of God? I don’t know, and would never presume to say, but for his legacy and story to have lasted in excess of 2,000 years he must have been an extraordinary person. Never have I been so inspired by a film about Christ, never have I felt so close to Christ, never did I believe I understood Christ more than I had than at that moment.
The Last Temptation of Christ remains one of the most profound filmgoing experiences of my life, I am not sure I will ever forget it. Sherri and I emerged galvanized in some way, unable to speak for nearly an hour after leaving, so great was the staggering impact of the picture.
The great mystery of Jesus has always been how could he have been just a man and yet the Son of God?? Born of human parents, a virgin birth (yeah, OK) and the Messiah that had long been predicted by the elders of the faith who then feared him and betrayed him, he grew into a man, according to Scorsese, who questioned who he was, what he was, and what he was being told he must do. How did Christ balance this duality?
This Jesus, beautifully portrayed by Willem Dafoe, hears voices that torment him, confuse him, and ravage his broken mind. As he toils making crosses for the Romans, a carpenter for hire (ironically) the voices he hears, the visions he sees threaten to drive him mad. But gradually we see Dafoe portray a Christ who accepts what he is hearing and moves toward being what he is meant to be. Dafoe grows into being Christ in a way no other actor portraying the role ever has, he is quietly extraordinary.
In adapting the book for the screen, Paul Schrader perfectly captures what Kazantakis put on the page, but gently merges it with what we know of Jesus from the Bible.
Scorsese captures desert vistas in this film that seem to intensify the brutal heat of the area, nothing grows here except the odd palm tree or scraps of grass. It is one of the most unforgiving landscapes I have ever seen in a major film, absolute desolation. In one startling sequence Christ stands alone in a barren wasteland as men climb from pits in the earth to be cured, of what we never know, yet the scene resembles souls emerging from the depths of hell to be healed. The energy of the healing exhausts Jesus, just as the astounding raising of Lazarus will leave him deeply exhausted. Opening the tomb, Christ calls him forward and makes a motion to pull Lazarus back to the world of the living as the camera moves deep into the cave, total blackness, the void between life and death, the eternal sleep Lazarus has entered. Then in a shocking image a hand reaches towards Christ as Lazarus walks out in the intense light, very much alive.
The hostility of the land of the Middle East is in every frame of the film, so much that we can feel the heat, feel the hard, baked ground beneath our feet, and look into the perfect blue sky, the intensity of the blue near impossible.
Dafoe carries the weight of the film on his shoulders as a Christ just as he carries the souls of humanity. Initially he does not want to be the savior, but in the end accepts his fate, returning to the cross to fulfill his destiny. Unlike any previous performances of Jesus, this one is hyper realistic, light years away from the light bathed, gentle Christ of The King of Kings (1927) which set the template, or The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) in which Christ seemed set apart from humanity. Gritty, searing, and tragic, Dafoe deserved an Oscar nomination for his superb performance. Whether he is right or wrong about his sense of divinity he is prepared, by the end to pay the terrible price, to do what his father wishes of him. Conflicted, tortured, immensely courageous, this must have been what Christ, all those things and terrified of being crucified. He once told me the role was the singular most difficult role of his career because everyone has a different idea of what Christ was.
“But for this Christ, in this film, I wanted to honor Marty (Scorsese) and his vision”, he said.
Critics were mostly kind to the film, and audiences were at least curious, but the Church, my God the reactions were infantile, urging their worshipers to challenge the film, to attack Scorsese any way they could, it was all rather shameful. The attacks were relentless, death threats to Scorsese who had to hire bodyguards to move about New York, threats to his well-being, to his family and friends, screenings were threatened fire bombing, and an entire theatre chain in the USA banned the film. When it was released on video, rental chains would not carry the picture. It was all insane. And bear in mind most of those attacking the film would never see it. Hypocrites.
The film received a single Academy Award nomination, Best Director for Martin Scorsese, richly deserved. A director of landscapes of inner cities, teeming city streets, inside cars, of life inside the mob, bars, darkened rooms, pool halls, night clubs and Italian homes, this one took him outdoors into the blistering heat of Morocco, which is where they shot the film. In recreating ancient Jerusalem, he worked miracles, capturing what it had been 2,000 years ago. It was bright, the sun a constant, burning orb, and an intensely harsh landscape, so much so I questioned how people could inhabit this area of the earth.
Along with Dafoe the performances in the film were superb – Andre Gregory as John the Baptist, Keitel as Judas, and especially David Bowie as Pilate, all business, nothing personal, and Barbra Hershey. Hershey was nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Supporting Actress for her performance, as was Peter Gabriel’s superb score.
Sixteen years after the release of the film came the equally brilliant though divisive The Passion of the Christ (2004) directed with astounding power by Mel Gibson. The film explores the last 12 hours in the life of Christ, his life glimpses in flashbacks, and the picture is without equal as the most violent I have ever seen. Yet I could not get over how he walked to Golgotha, beaten, scourged, pounded along the way carrying the cross, and he just kept walking to a destiny he knew of all too well. A masterpiece.
For me The Last Temptation of the Christ was the year’s best film in 1988, nothing really came close. Though the Academy had the courage to nominate Scorsese, the film received no other nominations despite deserving man. Had it been up to me, the film would have secured nods for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Screenplay Adaptation, Best Musical Score, Best Cinematography (remarkable), Best Sound and Best Film Editing, eight in all, which was the same number Rain Man (1988) received on the way to winning four Oscars including Best Picture. A good movie, no question, but Scorsese created a film for the ages, a miracle of a film.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.