Best Movies of All Time + Willem Dafoe



"God loves me. I know He loves me. I want him to stop."
-- Jesus

The Last Temptation of Christ is a 1988 drama directed by Martin Scorsese that's based off Nikos Kazantzakis's novel of the same name. It paints a very different portrait of Jesus (Willem Dafoe) than has been depicted in other films relating to the Gospel story. The film starts with Jesus trying to deal with God's voice in his head as he tries to live his life as an ordinary man. As time continues to pass, however, he begins to accept the path that God has laid before him. He joins with a man named Judas (Harvey Keitel) and begins to recruit his disciples and apostles. The group makes their way into the desert where Jesus meets John the Baptist (Andre Gregory), who sends him into the desert to wait for God's direction. While there, Jesus is tempted by Satan a number of times, but Jesus is able to deny him time and again, returning from the desert with a renewed fervor as he starts his ministry. As more time passes, however, Jesus realizes what his true fate will entail, and he and his apostles begin to prepare for his imminent crucifixion.

While I've known about this film for quite some time, I figured today (being Martin Scorsese's birthday) would be as good a day as any to finally take the time to give it a view. I had heard a little of the film's controversy, but I didn't know just how controversial it had been upon its initial release. A lot of the issues with the film stemmed from Christians' belief that it strayed too far from the four Gospels represented in the Bible; however, the film does offer the following disclaimer at the opening:

"The dual substance of Christ - the yearning, so human, so superhuman, of man to attain God... has always been a deep inscrutable mystery to me. My principle anguish and source of all my joys and sorrows from my youth onward has been the incessant, merciless battle between the spirit and the flesh... and my soul is the arena where these two armies have clashed and met." - Nikos Kazantzakis from the book "The Last Temptation of Christ"

This film is not based upon the Gospels but upon this fictional exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict.

So, if you are able to take that into account, you can see that the filmmakers have at least given themselves an "out" in terms of Christian concerns with sticking to the letter of the Bible.

As a Catholic, watching this film was a rather interesting experience. While I wasn't taken aback by some of the "controversial" subject matter, it did come off as a little bit strange considering how I was raised. Because I know the Gospels' story so well, I was able to follow along with the basic storyline while focusing on the changes they were trying to emphasize. I do admit that seeing some of the sexual aspects of the film was a tad bit off-putting considering my upbringing, I have to applaud Scorsese and Dafoe for making Jesus a very human character. I think I've always had a slightly different image of Christ than is often placed before us. I think he's been conveyed as more feminine than the real Jesus would have been. I mean, the man was a carpenter - at the very least, he must have been an impressive physical specimen. I think that The Last Temptation of Christ found that masculinity and exploited it, bringing a very different image of Jesus than contemporary audiences had ever seen. In his review for the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert stated that the filmmakers have "paid Christ the compliment of taking him and his message seriously, and they have made a film that does not turn him into a garish, emasculated image from a religious postcard. Here he is flesh and blood, struggling, questioning..." I think that's what I loved most about this film. Most other films about Christ emphasize the divinity of Christ, but we have to remember that he was also a man and must have struggled just as much as other men have for all of human history.

To talk more structurally about the screenplay, I thought they did well in making it come full circle. While I did think there were a couple "Hollywood" moments that seemed a little out of place, the fact that the film delivers on the basic premise alluded to in its title is a huge plus for me. My only real issue with the screenplay was that of dialogue. As my readers will know, I'm a bit of a stickler when it comes to a film's screenplay. For a screenplay to be good, it has to have a legitimate storyline and plot while balancing it with great dialogue. The issue with the dialogue in The Last Temptation of Christ isn't so much what they're saying but how they're saying it. It sounds a little too contemporary, and while this is a more modern retelling of the Gospel story, it was so colloquially American that it started to take me out of the film after a while. It made the characters (including Jesus) just a tad too unbelievable. Now, I don't think they should've gone The Passion of the Christ with it and have spoken in Aramaic, but something a little more period-friendly might have been more effective.

I did have a little bit of issue with the acting in the film, however. While I have no real qualms with Dafoe's performance (it's typical Dafoe, although it's definitely one of his better roles), there were a few acting decisions that left me scratching my head. First and foremost was Keitel's casting as Judas. I don't know about anyone else who's seen this film, but I just couldn't place him in this film at all. I kept seeing him in Reservoir Dogs, and he proved to be a bit of a distraction as a result. His dialogue was the most prevalently colloquial, and I don't think that really helped his character. We do get a few good performances from supporting characters. For example, Barbara Hershey does well as Mary Magdalene, and David Bowie made a fantastic cameo appearance as Pontius Pilate. We even get a decent, albeit minor, performance from Harry Dean Stanton as Saul. However, this is truly Dafoe's vehicle, and it should be treated as such. While it's not the most brilliant performance I've ever seen, it's still strong enough to warrant your attention.

Overall, The Last Temptation of Christ is a strong, albeit slightly strange, film that's probably not for everyone. If you have strong Christian convictions, I can be reasonably sure that you've going to find issue with some of the film's scenes. However, if you can look past that, then you'll find there's a very strong film with a very strong message to be learned. Is this film going to change my personal view of Christ or religion? Of course not. At the end of the day, it's one individual's personal opinion, and it happened to make it to the screen. If you want something straight from the Bible, watch the aforementioned Passion of the Christ. However, if you want something a little bit different, give this one a chance. You just might be surprised.

Movie Review SummaryGrade: A-
1.5 Thumbs Up

1988, Andre Gregory, Barbara Hershey, David Bowie, drama, Harry Dean Stanton, Harvey Keitel, Last Temptation of Christ, life, Martin Scorsese, movie review, and more:

Relevant to: THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST + Willem Dafoe