color 164 min.
Director: Martin Scorsese
CAV/CLV: $99.95 - available
2 discs, catalog # CC1503L
Can we finally look at The Last Temptation of Christ? It's not a simple question.
And there are no easy answers.
The Last Temptation of Christ is, without question, one of the most serious, literate,
complex, and deeply felt religious films ever made. Brilliantly directed by Martin Scorsese,
this adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis' imaginative retelling of the life of Christ should
surely be discussed alongside Carl Th. Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, Robert
Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest, and Pier Paolo Pasolini's The Gospel According
to St. Matthew by theological scholars and thoughtful moviegoers alike for years to come.
Unfortunately, such serious discussion has been blocked by a yowling mob of right-wing zealots
who have stood in the way of all discussions of the work since it was first released in 1988.
Written in 1955, The Last Temptation of Christ, according to its author, shows that "that
part of Christ's nature which was profoundly human helps us to understand and love him and to
pursue his passion as though it were our own. If he had not within him this warm human element,
he would never be able to touch our hearts with such assurance and tenderness; he would not be
able to become a model for our lives."
It goes without saying that such a story would be bound to meet with the disapproval of the
dogmatic. By the same token, it is one that is ideally suited to the makeup of such complex
psychological studies as Mean Streets and Raging Bull. Still, no one could have
quite predicted what happened when Kazantzakis' tale was finally before Scorsese's cameras.
In 1983, Scorsese began preproduction on the film for Paramount Pictures. Budgeted ฟ million
to ฤ million, this version of Last Temptation would have starred Aidan Quinn as
Jesus, with Harvey Keitel as Judas, Barbara Hershey as Mary Magdalene, and Sting as Pontius
Pilate. But weeks before the shooting was to begin the project was canceled -- at least in part
as a result of a letter-writing campaign engineered by right-wing fundamentalist Christian groups.
They claimed that Last Temptation would portray Christ as a homosexual -- though such a
notion figured neither in the Kazantzakis novel nor in the film Scorsese planned. Unbowed,
Scorsese persevered, eventually making Last Temptation for Universal Pictures
(for an estimated Ů million to Ű million), four years later with Willem Dafoe as Christ,
David Bowie as Pilate, and Keitel and Hershey in the parts for which they were originally cast.
But by that time, the hysterical fantasies of a select few had given way to the organized
campaign of a larger and more sinister consortium. Fueled by half-truths, outright lies, and
anti-Semitic slurs -- the likes of which haven't been heard in this country since the executions
of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg -- this well-orchestrated campaign demanded nothing less than
Last Temptation's total destruction. Spearheaded by Tim Penland of MasterMedia and Bill
Bright of the Campus Crusade for Christ, an ad hoc committee of self-styled "fundamentalist
leaders" declared that a film none of them had actually seen depicted "a mentally deranged,
lust-driven man who, in a dream sequence, comes down off the cross and has a sexual relationship
with Mary Magdalene." If Universal would not burn the negative, they offered to buy it to destroy
Predictably, those TV-savvy right-wing reverends Jerry Falwell and Donald Wildmon joined the
chorus of disapproval, along with the three Pats‹Robertson, Buchanan, and Boone. Though they
hadn't seen the film, they were far from disinclined to discuss it. Likewise, director Franco
Zeffirelli withdrew his Young Toscanini from the Venice Film Festival when he learned
that Last Temptation -- which he described sight-unseen as "truly horrible and completely
deranged" -- was invited there for a screening. In this he was little different from the Roman
Catholic archbishop of Los Angeles, Roger Mahony, who, though he hadn't seen the film, deemed
it "morally offensive."
Still, the archbishop made a point of distancing his critique from the protests of the Reverend
H. L. Hymers, who staged a rally in front of the home of Lew Wasserman, then chairman of MCA,
the parent company of Universal Pictures. Carrying placards proclaiming "Wasserman fans
anti-Semitism," this minister and his flock proceeded to provide the fanning -- chanting to all
who'd hear that "Jewish money" was behind Last Temptation.
Had the Reverend Hymers been a bit more attentive to detail, he would have been aware that Nikos
Kazantzakis was of the Greek Orthodox faith; that Paul Schrader, who wrote the screenplay, was
raised as a Calvinist; and that Martin Scorsese was a Roman Catholic. But then, Hymers hadn't
seen the film either. And why should he, or any of Last Temptation's foes, want to confuse
themselves with the facts?
Rather than a "blasphemous" attack on Christ's divinity, climaxing with a salacious "sex scene,"
The Last Temptation of Christ is a stirring affirmation of faith both in the person of
Jesus and in his teachings. This affirmation is unorthodox only in that it requires a viewer to
think about the meaning of the gospels for every one of the film's 164 minutes. And it is this
process of thought that the film's attackers can't abide -- particularly as such thought involves
the paradox of Jesus' simultaneous divinity and humanity. And this is the crux of the matter.
For The Last Temptation of Christ presents divinity not as a given, but rather as a process
Christ explores through his humanity. Consequently, the film's message couldn't be simpler.
By experiencing Jesus' divinity as a process, we come to learn how the divine might enter our own
We first meet Jesus as a grown man -- frail and terrified. Troubled by crippling headaches and
mystical visions, he's well aware that he isn't like ordinary men but is uncertain about what the
future holds in store for him. He sees himself as a sinner, for while he's resisted sin, he feels
he's done so out of cowardice. He takes personal responsibility for the fact that Mary Magdalene
has become a prostitute -- blaming himself for not having married her and provided a normal life.
His friend Judas is convinced that Jesus' future is in politics -- as the man who will lead the
Jews in revolt against their Roman captors. But after meditating in the desert, Jesus comes to
a different realization of his destiny. Slowly gathering about him the group of men and women
who would become his disciples, he begins to preach.
"I'll just open my mouth and God will do the talking," he says at first. Later, as he gains
conviction, he talks both of love and of "the sword." Finally, he comes to realize that his
purpose on Earth is to be the "lamb of God," sacrificing himself on the cross. He urges Judas to
betray him in order to accomplish this mission. And it is on the cross he faces his "last
Looking down, Jesus sees a beautiful little girl who claims to be an angel of the Lord. She
tells him his sufferings are over and that he doesn't have to go through with the crucifixion.
It is only a test -- like God's telling Abraham to kill his son Isaac. Taking him to a verdant
valley, the girl presents him to Mary Magdalene for marriage. Magdalene later dies, but Jesus
continues living a quiet life with Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus -- the man whom he
raised from the dead. "There is only one woman in the world," the girl tells him. He fathers
children and lives to a ripe old age. But on Jesus' deathbed an angry Judas confronts him.
He tells him he's missed his calling by not being crucified. And he reveals that the angelic-looking
girl is, in fact, the devil. Realizing the truth, Jesus recommits himself to God -- and finds
himself back on the cross. In truth, he's been there all along. The "last temptation" took place
in a flash, between his questioning why God has "forsaken him" and his final declaration that
"it is accomplished." It is in this final moment that Christ's divinity is fully revealed.
All of this, needless to say, means nothing to the film's enemies, who have used it as little
more than a ploy to regain ground lost in the wake of the Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart money
and sex scandals. And that's not to mention those other opportunists, who, in the wake of
Last Temptation, have created a powerful reactionary political lobby within the
Republican Party that calls itself "Christian" while harboring beliefs and attitudes that are
more political than spiritual.
But that is another matter -- and the possible subject of another movie. For the moment, it is
enough to contemplate -- in reasoned calm -- the power and the glory of Martin Scorsese's
The Last Temptation of Christ.
-- David Ehrenstein
David Ehrenstein has been writing film criticism for thirty years for publications including
Film Comment, The Los Angeles Times, Cahiers du Cinéma, and
Film Quarterly. He is the author of The Scorsese Picture: The Art and Life of
Martin Scorsese (Birch Lane Press, 1992).
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Produced by Barbara De Fina
Executive producer: Harry Ufland
Director of photography: Michael Ballhaus, A.S.C.
Edited by: Thelma Schoonmaker
Production designer: John Beard
Costume designer: Jean-Pierre Delifer
Music by: Peter Gabriel
Based on the novel by: Nikos Kazantzakis
Screenplay by: Paul Schrader
Casting by: Cis Corman
Jesus: Willem Dafoe
Judas: Harvey Keitel
Mary Magdalene: Barbara Hershey
Saul/Paul: Harry Dean Stanton
Pontius Pilate: David Bowie
Mary, Mother of Jesus: Verna Bloom
Jeroboam: Barry Miller
Zebedee: Irvin Kershner
John the Baptist: Andre Gregory
Girl Angel: Juliette Caton
About the Transfer
The Last Temptation of Christ was transferred from the 35mm interpositive on the high reolution
Spirit Datacine in the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1.
The sound was manufactured from the original 35mm Dolby stereo print mater. The transfer was
by Maria Palazzola with the participation of cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and editor Thelma