The Last Temptation of Christ (1988): Martin Scorsese's Adaptation of the Controversial 1953 Novel By Greek Philosopher Nikos Kazantzakis

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review

By Murtaza Ali

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the last temptation of christ, martin scorsese
The Last Temptation of Christ (1987) - By Martin Scorsese

Our Rating: 9.0
IMDb Ratings: 7.5
Genre: Drama
CastWillem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel and Barbara Hershey
Country: USA | Canada
Language: English
Runtime: 164 min
Color: Color (Technicolor)

The Last Temptation of Christ, an adaptation of the controversial 1953 novel of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis, is a 1988 drama film directed by veteran American auteur Martin Scorsese. The Last Temptation of Christ is arguably Martin Scorsese's greatest contribution to the world of cinema and undoubtedly his boldest attempt at filmmaking. The Last Temptation brilliantly highlights the dichotomy associated with Christ's life: the veracity pertaining to his divine existence and his fallibilities as a mortal being. The movie primarily focuses on Jesus’ struggle as a mere mortal overwhelmed by the temptations of the quotidian. The Last Temptation of Christ presents the perpetual battle that a mortal being faces: the struggle against his inner fears, weakness, disbelief, reluctance, dejection and lust. At its very core, the movie also serves to be a great learning lesson to mankind by accentuating the importance of keeping a check on the gift of free will, something that even Christ struggled to fathom during the early going.

Willem Dafoe as Jesus Christ in The Last Temptation of Christ
Willem Dafoe as Jesus Christ in The Last Temptation of Christ
Nikolas Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ is a departure from the Biblical portrayal of Christ’s life and presents a fictionalized account of the greatest story ever told. Scorsese succeeds in his daunting attempt to emulate Kazantzakis by trying to capture the dual nature of Christ that, in the words of Kazantzakis himself, forms the basis of The Eternal Spiritual Conflict. Kazantzakis, rather than offering a completely parallel take on Jesus’ life, takes the liberty of manipulating the actual occurrences—according to the Bible—of Jesus’ life, thereby fiddling with the very pillars of Christianity. The novel, for this very reason, has been the subject of a great deal of controversy and regularly appears on international lists of banned books. Scorsese’s rendition, being quite true to the novel, created a lot of furor at the time of its release and since then has become a subject of constant debate between the conservatives and the liberals. Some of the controversial scenes depicted in The Last Temptation of Christ are deemed as sacrilegious by the religious fanatics, especially the one depicting Jesus Christ making love to a prostitute, Mary Magdalene, and the one that shows Christ being led astray by Satan in disguise of an adolescent girl .

willem dafoe as jesus christ, harvey keitel as judas, the last temptation of christ
A Still from Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ
Jesus of Nazareth, tormented by the constant call of God to rise against the pervasive evil and his own lack of self-belief, takes up the abominable task of making crosses for the Romans in an attempt to make the God hate him. Overwhelmed by the dichotomy of his existence and the pity for mankind, he finally sets out to discover what God has planned for him. But in order to fulfill the true purpose of his existence, he must first overcome his greatest temptation: the possibility to live the life of a normal human. The central theme of The Last Temptation of Christ is Jesus’ agnosticism pertaining to him being the Messiah; even after becoming aware of his great healing powers, he at times fails to fully comprehend the meaning and purpose of his existence. Christ’s lack of conviction in his own divine ability is most obvious in the sequence in which he raises Lazarus from the dead: a definitive moment of epiphany.

Harvey Keitel as Judas in The Last Temptation of Christ
Harvey Keitel as Judas in The Last Temptation of Christ
Willem Dafoe is mesmerizing in Kazantzakis’ avatar of Christ, a role that seems tailor-made for him. He seems to have taken complete care of the subtleties and nuances needed to play a part as convoluted as Jesus’. During the portrayal, Dafoe goes through an entire gamut of emotions, but not at the expense of poise and control. He is provided great support by the stalwart presence of Harvey Keitel who as Judas is a revelation. In the avatar of a brand new Judas, Keitel serves to be an enigma for the most part. Judas' conflicted loyalties go on to play a very crucial role in Christ's eternal journey for salvation.  The rest of the cast has performed exceedingly well with a special mention of ravishing Barbara Hershey as Mary Magdalene. On the technical front, The Last Temptation of Christ is glitch-free as one usually expects with someone as meticulous as Martin Scorsese. Michael Ballhaus’ cinematography adds great detail to the movie and is well complemented by Peter Gabriel’s hypnotic music.

Barbara Hershey as Mary Magdalene in The Last Temptation of Christ
Barbara Hershey as Mary Magdalene in The Last Temptation of Christ
Overall, The Last Temptation of Christ represents a wonderful specimen of movie-making that can be truly savored by doing away with religious conservatism and bigotry. Scorsese, in his trademark style, has succeeded in leaving several artistic impressions on the movie that can best be analyzed only after the second or third viewing. The movie also serves to be a great learning experience for the students of cinema who can delve deep to develop a better understanding for themselves. Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ is a consummate cinematic experience: a startling vision, a tale extraordinaire that shakes the very basis of humanity. 

Readers, please feel free to share your opinion by leaving your comments. As always your feedback is highly appreciated!

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The Last Temptation of Christ Trailer

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  1. One of Scorsese's very best... indeed a startling vision and an extraordinary tale. Nicely written!!!

    1. Couldn't have agreed with you more. Thanks a ton for sharing your valuable opinion!!!

  2. This film is sublime! William Dafoe is excellent and I highly recommend this film whether a believer in Jesus or not. Though, if you are it may not be so appealing as you'll find out. One of my most favorite Scorsese's and I am a lover of all his films.

  3. Really unlike anything he's ever done before or after. Truly a strange film.

  4. Wonderful review. One of my favorite Scorsese movie.

  5. I found the novel more inspiring than the movie. The movie plays heavily on our sentiments.

    1. Thanks a lot for sharing your valuable suggestion. Since, I haven't read the novel myself I don't have the luxury to compare the two. However, I would love to read the novel in order to be in a position to make the comparison.


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