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Burning Questions: Does Last Temptation Still Have the Power to Outrage?

Michael C here to reflect on a cinematic milestone. This month marks twenty-five years since the release of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

Growing up Catholic I was taught that Jesus was both human and divine, yet the depictions of Jesus I was presented with invariably paid minimal lip service to his human side while emphasizing the holy. Flicks like King of Kings and The Greatest Story Ever Told presented a Christ with all the humanity of a figure on a stained glass window. The Jesus in these movies is forever staring off into the distance, beatific smile on his face, arms outstretched, making proclamations in the gentle tones of an easy listening DJ. Even his words seem to be walking on water.

It wasn’t until college when I saw Scorsese’s version that I finally grasped what it meant for Jesus to have the same frailties as the rest of us, rather than have a Jesus who appears human but who has none of the weaknesses of humanity. The troubled, doubting savior portrayed by Willem Dafoe in Last Temptaion bears little resemblance to the star of those comforting but shallow Biblical pageants. [more...]

To show their appreciation to the great director for making a compelling and beautiful film about the core tenets of Christianity, many of the faithful greeted Last Temptation with one of the biggest controversies in cinema history. Stoked by professional outrage mongers, protesters (few of whom, needless to say, had actually seen the movie) boycotted and threatened until many theater chains refused to show the film. By the end religious extremists wielding Molotov cocktails attacked a Paris theater showing the movie while security personnel were opening Scorsese’s mail for him.

Viewed now, a quarter century later, the disparity between the earnest spiritual searching of the actual film and the sordid stigma of its reputation is so drastic it leads one to wonder: If it was released in 2013 instead of 1988 would The Last Temptation of Christ still cause such an outrage? 

I can think of a few reasons why it would not.

For one thing, it’s easy to imagine how today’s Catholic Church would be eager to embrace a work that could be read as an endorsement of the faith, especially one made by a cultural figure as towering as Scorsese. The intervening years has seen an influx of religious films like Dogma, Da Vinci Code, and Religilous, works that range from the flippant and silly to outright hostile towards organized religion. Last Temptation, conversely, is nothing if not the work of a sincere religious searching, a fact that could help Christian leaders to overlook some of its rougher edges.

Furthermore, protesters would have a much harder time dominating the conversation than they did in 1988. Not only do legions of online film writers have an outlet to defend the film and place its button-pushing scenes in all-important context, but online streaming could also guarantee the film’s availability to open-minded viewers. Anger toward the film would surely dissipate as access to the real thing contradicted the warped version of the film peddled by the film’s detractors.

Or maybe this is all wishful thinking.

Although The Passions of the Christ is an entirely different animal, the uproar it provoked shows that a religious film is still capable of galvanizing public opinion. And while it’s tough to imagine any reasonable, thoughtful person being provoked to fury by Last Temptation it still provides plenty of ammunition to an outrage machine that never tires of picking on Hollywood and never passes on an opportunity to get its followers blood boiling.

For one thing, while all religious movies play fast and loose with the Gospels, Last Temptation is especially brazen in its re-interpretation. By including a brief scene where Jesus participates in a man's crucifixion, as well as a notorious fantasy scene which depicts him in a sexual context, the film provides ideal rallying points for those folks who are always on the lookout for a reason to be offended. Why bother to understand the logic of a film – and it makes perfect sense that a human Jesus could be tempted by the fantasy of a completely mortal life – when you can just point to a few fleeting moments and yell, “Blasphemy!”

I don’t suppose The Last Temptation of Christ will ever completely escape its association with controversy. But after two and a half decades it's clear that the film has survived attempts to tear it down and can now be appreciated and pondered far from the shouts of self-appointed moral crusaders. It will never be as popular as cheap, easily digestible religious entertainments, but it belongs on a list with films like Dreyer’s Ordet or Pasolini’s The Gospel Accoring to Saint Matthew. Movies that truly capture the awe at the heart of faith.

Previous Burning Questions
You can follow Michael C. on Twitter at @SeriousFilm. Or read his blog Serious Film

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Reader Comments (16)

Oh, I remember this controversy VERY well. I was going to college in Eugene, OR, and the movie was playing for some reason in downtown Springfield, a short bus ride away. (Springfield, for those not in the know, is a very small, industrial/rural town that at the time was mostly known for lumber products.) My college boyfriend, who was an occasional journalist for the school paper, and I went to see it, and sure enough there were demonstrators. My bf, knowing no fear (or, depending on your perspective, not having any tact or common sense), walked boldly up to one of the sign-carriers and asked what they were protesting, why they were so worked up, and whether or not they'd actually seen the film. (No, they hadn't.) As one guy earnestly explained, "I've seen Jesus, brother--I've met him. I know him. Whatever they have in there up on that screen, that's not the Jesus I know." As they say, if your faith is so flimsy that it can be shaken or called into question by a movie...

As to the movie itself, I've always meant to go back and watch it again. I remember thinking parts of it were amazing and parts were borderline looney-tunes, but only in that fervent way that a true Catholic could come up with. (Jesus pulling out his heart? Really?) And the last half-hour, far from being blasphemous, becomes a profoundly moving statement about faith and what it truly means. Flaws and all, I'd still rather see it again than "The Passion Of the Christ"--which I like to say is about 15 minutes of the most inspiring and haunting film ever made about Jesus, surrounded by 100+ minutes of a snuff horror movie.

August 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDback

It may be Scorsese's best movie.

August 21, 2013 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

This was a great piece!

August 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

Thanks, Glen!

And thanks Dback for sharing that account. I was too young in 88 to remember that experience first hand.

Cal - Don't know if I could go that far, but top 5? Sure.

August 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.

The Hershey-Dafoe sex scene for me, when I first saw it at 16 (beginning my time as a Scorsese completeist), was pretty hot and considering who they were playing- I can see the scandal in that. But otherwise, I agree with how this movie expresses faith and find that Scorsese and the cast really believed what the movie was for. Some stuff is still a little silly like the stylistic flourishes and Harvey Keitel's casting as Judas, but to me it was great for him to express the kind of Catholicism that we were first introduced to in a lapsed Catholic way (which for me was so relatable) in the brilliant Mean Streets.

My parents, who still get on me for leaving the Church, LOVE that movie. They roll their eyes at the various pieces of popular culture that are the latest crusades by the Church like The DaVinci Code or even that odd hostility toward Harry Potter. They remember when they could not admit to friends they liked the movie much less saw it.

August 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

I went to see this at the Zigfeld theater in NYC on opening day. There was an army of religious nuts protesting outside. They had a very confused idea about how sacrilegious the move was suppose to be ( Jesus having sex on screen?!!!)

August 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

CMG - I'm not surprised folks like your parents love the film. Once you look past the inflammatory superficial stuff it makes the story of Christ more relatable and beautiful than anything else I've seen. Christians should rally behind it!

August 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.

I really have no idea why people were so offended by it. Oh, right. Probably because they never actually saw it!

August 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTyler

That Jesus when he was on the cross expresses doubts along with temptations and that there was even a suggestion of an alternative path for him (that movie clearly is not endorsing) had a lot of people going nuts. Though I expect that there were certain segments of the Church to have even seen the movie. These were largely the same group of people that called Life of Brian sacrilegious (even though it made a point in the very beginning of the movie to separate the story from Christ).

August 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

Haven't read the book or seen the movie (I'd like to read the book first) but let me add that Nikos Kazantzakis, the writer, was excommunicated by the Greek Orthodox Church (or they tried to but didn't actually do it, according to an article I just found) for writing the novel.

August 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJames T

Besides the Kazantzakis book in which the movie is based, I'd recommend reading the most-maligned José Saramago novel O Evangelho Segundo Jesus Cristo (The Gospel According to Jesus Christ) who talks about the same subject.

I say much-maligned because it was wildly criticised at the time in Europe and especially in Portugal, a very catholic country, where the book spawned a national controversy - with people from the Government being quite critical of Saramago and demanding that the book was withdrawn from competing for the Aristeion prize - which in turn lead to José Saramago leaving Portugal for Lanzarote, where he exiled.

It's being adapted into a movie next year, from the same director as JOSÉ AND PILAR, Portuguese documentary that was our submission for the Foreign Film Oscar in 2011.

August 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJorge Rodrigues

Of course it still has the power to outrage. There will always be angry religious people.

August 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip H.

I think this movie is so arresting, so beautiful, so powerful. The comparision to other classics of spirituality in movies, like Ordet, is pretty accurate. It surely reminds us why religion and art have been so tightly connected since always.

August 22, 2013 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

I'd read the book before seeing the movie, but I haven't seen the movie for a long time.

What most delighted me in the movie was Harry Dean Stanton's portrayal of Doubting Thomas. I always think of that as one of the best supporting turns EVER. He illuminates the character, it suddenly makes perfect sense, and it's just enthralling to be carried along.

Harvey Keitel, as Judas, adds the kind of thoughtful complexity and moral dilemmas embodied in everyday physicality that he also added to Mean Streets with his improvisations that developed the theme for that movie.

I liked Barbara Hershey's utter sincerity in her role, although it didn't always work perfectly for me. She was the mover and motivator in getting Scorsese to make this movie.

But William Defoe as Christ didn't work for me. Sometimes I felt he was mentally satirizing his work. That he was holding back, because he was too cool and artistic to actually fully commit to exploring what goodness is, and how things can not work out even if your whole heart and soul is in it. Stanton, Keitel, and Hershey threw every bit of themselves into their role, not caring how foolish or vulnerable it made them look. Defoe didn't. I felt like shaking him, saying if you take the part, commit to it, otherwise let someone else do it.

August 22, 2013 | Unregistered Commenteradri

I know I was harsh on Kietel as Judas but it could've been much, much worse.

"The original cast included Aidan Quinn as Jesus, Sting as Pontius Pilate, Ray Davies as Judas Iscariot, and Vanity as Mary Magdalene."

Was Marty shooting for a musical? Was there more to Peter Gabriel's score?

I actually liked Dafoe a lot. He seemed to understand the book and script and yeah, it is a hard part to play. The temptation is of his doubts and seeking to be just a man.

August 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

What happened to Dafoe? He's kind AOL the last few years.

August 22, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

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