Last Temptation of Christ, The (1988)

Review #1,222

Director:  Martin Scorsese
Cast:  Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Barbara Hershey
Plot:  The life of Jesus Christ, his journey through life as he faces the struggles all humans do, and his final temptation on the cross.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Nom. for 1 Oscar - Best Director.
Runtime:  164min
Rating:  (Still) banned in Singapore (ought to be R21 without cuts)
Distributor:  Universal Pictures

“If I was a woodcutter, I'd cut.  If I was a fire, I'd burn.  But I'm a heart and I love.  That's the only thing I can do.”

I haven’t seen a truly astonishing Martin Scorsese picture for a long time, apart from his staples Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980) and Goodfellas (1990).  The Last Temptation of Christ is in that league of masterpieces, well just only.  It remains underrated and severely misunderstood for the wrong reasons.  This is quite simply as close as you can get to possibly the most spiritually affirmative picture about Christ ever made. 

The irony is that it continues to be banned in Singapore.  Perhaps the authorities were also caught up with the religious controversy in 1988 and decided to ban it.  I think the ban ought to be lifted, well, it’s almost thirty years.  It isn’t the sacrilegious or blasphemous picture that right-wing Christian religious fundamentalists in the States made it out to be.  Mind you, they hadn't even bother seeing the film.

So here it is, Scorsese’s most intensely personal work about faith (I can't wait for Silence in 2016), and an uncompromising adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel.  Starring Willem Dafoe as Jesus Christ, Harvey Keitel as Judas, and Barbara Hershey as Mary Magdalene, the film is an alternative reimagining of the familiar story of Christ.  The performances are superb, with Dafoe embodying both Christ's human and divine qualities, and that is really the catch.

The courage of Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader to portray the holy man as suffering from human temptations of violence, power and lust, not to mention occasionally being under the influence of Satan, makes Christ a more believable figure.  He came to us as a man, and for better or worse, experienced our mortal existence with confusing feelings of sin and goodness.  But he left the world, in a true act of sacrifice, knowing that his divinity is real, fully redeemed from any lingering temptations.  

The Last Temptation of Christ is a breeze to sit through, despite running close to three hours.  It is refreshing, empathetic and even transcendent, unlike the sadomasochistic The Passion of the Christ (2004), which doesn't hold a candle to Scorsese's work.  Another film, Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), while no doubt a great picture, isn't as thoroughly enjoyable, though it is no less meaningful. 

I must say that one of the best takeaways of The Last Temptation of Christ is Peter Gabriel's brilliant music, taking the shape of an ethnic and rhythmic world music form with a new-agey ethereal vibe.  I must make a mental note to get that score on CD. 

Verdict:  Scorsese’s most misunderstood film is also one of his masterpieces – an intensely personal, highly evocative and possibly the most spiritually affirmative picture about Christ ever made.


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