Religion seems to be a topic that many people have close minded views on. What someone believe is in is right, and will not accept anything other than what they have been taught their entire lives. Some people, however, find that it is healthy and good to question aspects of your faith. When Martin Scorsese released The Last Temptation of Christ is 1988, it was met with immediate controversy. In fact, many people will rank it as one of the most controversial films ever made.
Jesus (Willem Dafoe) is a carpenter who uses his skill to make crosses for the Romans to crucify Jews. He is not happy with what he does, being a Jewish man, and also struggle with the fact that he is on Earth for something bigger. After much meditation and sorrow, he begins to recruit others to the cause of love, starting with Judas Iscariot (Harvey Keitel). Jesus’ message spreads far and wide with news of his teachings and miracles. Even with the proof of his divinity, Jesus is still a human being and suffers with temptation and doubt many times, the most difficult time being on the cross.
I can see how some people would be cautious going into this movie seeing that religion is always a controversial subject. With this movie, Scorsese looked controversy square in the eye and welcomed it. Religious zealots who never even saw the movie began to condemn it and call it blasphemous. After seeing the movie, I can’t really see any true blasphemy. Sure, the film takes a look at a side of Jesus that is rarely discussed, but I can hardly call that an assault on his existence or demeaning him in any way. In fact, the message of this movie is quite positive.
What this movie does, and what I love, is that Jesus is made more human than we have ever seen him. Christianity teaches that Jesus was both fully God and fully man. In that regard, Willem Dafoe does an outstanding job. Everything he does in this movie feels different than the other performances of Jesus that I’ve seen. A runner up in humanity would be Jim Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ. Even in that movie, there was always confidence that he would succeed in his torturous mission, because it was pretty understood throughout that movie that he was a divine figure. Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ always looks like there is a small amount of doubt in what he’s doing, but he still sticks with it. Like I said, it’s the most human portrayal of a biblical figure I have yet to see.
Mostly, though, this film is a complete work of fiction, and Scorsese states that it is not an accurate account of the Gospels. It was a little hard getting used to the story in this movie in contrast to the story I already know. It’s a very drastic change, but one that is really interesting once you get used to it. These changes made a lot of people angry. Even something that may be considered objectively offensive turns out to be reinforcing Jesus’ character or just creating dramatic tension. Never is the Gospels or God put down in any way.
This movie does get a detraction, however. Some of the dialogue is downright terrible. At times, it’s so bad that I can’t believe Scorsese was actually comfortable with filming it. These scenes are acted pretty bad because there is no way to really make this dialogue sound authentic. Harvey Keitel is also usually a really good actor, but his Bronx-like portrayal of Judas feels lazy. He didn’t seem to really try to change his personality at all to get into the role of Judas, who most certainly wasn’t from New York even in this work of fiction.
The Last Temptation of Christ is a moving look at something that people remain very close-minded about. It dares to ask “what if?” and also shows Jesus in a way that I can imagine isn’t normal thought about. I was a little concerned going into this movie thinking it was going to be preachy, but it was anything but. It’s a fantastic exploration on a person whose existence has been debated for centuries, but believe in him or not, this is not a movie that you should overlook.