There’s a Hollywood legend that for his portrayal of Jesus Christ in the Biblical classic King of Kings, actor Jeffrey Hunter had to have all his body hair shaved off after people became upset upon seeing him crucified with armpit hair. The 1961 movie was the first movie to portray Jesus’ face. If you look at the 1959 epic Ben-Hur, his face is obscured by a black smudge even when he’s in the background.
Ironically, Jesus had been portrayed in paintings as some European Brad Pitt/Barry Gibb hybrid. Some have speculated the portrayal was actually based on a European prince whose father demanded all portraits be made in the prince’s images. Others claim the image was of Leonard da Vinci’s secret gay lover.
No one would think of Willem Dafoe playing Jesus. Well, no one but Martin Scorsese, that is. The famous director, who at one time himself considered a calling for priesthood, had been trying to make the adaptation of The Last Temptation of Christ for many years after receiving a copy of the book by Nikos Kazantzakis from Barbara Hershey, who he had directed in Boxcar Bertha. At point in the early 1980s, everything was set to go through Paramount Pictures with Aidan Quinn to play Christ.
Then, Paramount’s parent company Gulf+Western grew weary of the project and dropped it. Scorsese had intended it to be a follow-up to his comedy-drama The King of Comedy it didn’t help that the movie starring Robert DeNiro and Jerry Lewis failed both with audiences and critics. Worse, Scorsese was still trying to rebound professionally and mentally from the 1981 assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan. John Hinckley had reportedly tried to assassinate Reagan as he was infatuated with Jodie Foster. Hinckley claimed to be inspired by Scorsese’s Taxi Driver in which DeNiro played a character who considers assassinating a Presidential candidate. Foster was also a co-star in the movie.
The early 1980s hadn’t been kind to Scorsese as he even considered leaving filmmaking following the assassination attempt and the failure of King. Yet, he still couldn’t get the notion of adapting the movie out of his head. Scorsese, raised Catholic in his Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, had been wanting to make a movie about Jesus since he began to focus on filmmaking in his youth.
After making After Hours and The Color of Money, Scorsese was finally able to get Universal to pony up $7 million but they only were going to give him less than 60 days to film the movie which is nearly three hours long. Dafoe had been rejecting offers following the success of Platoon before he said he was approached by Scorsese. Filming was done with only a few takes. But Dafoe said Scorsese had the movie already imagined how he wanted it.
Even though Temptation follows a lot of the major plot points in Christ’s life (changing water to wine; saving Mary Magdalene, portrayed by Hershey, from being stoned; resurrecting Lazarus; riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, with Peter Gabriel’s majestic beautiful score playing on the soundtrack), the movie paints Jesus as more human. Today, they would say Jesus is suffering from “imposter syndrome,” but they also call it self-doubt. This is an intriquing take on how to portray someone who questioned His own life.
There are some controversial aspects, such as the movie portraying Jesus as a man who built crosses for the Romans. There’s also criticism that many speak in very American accents. Scorsese casts some of his regular actors such as Harvey Keitel as Judas Iscariot and Victor Argo as Peter the Apostle. Going back to the issue with body hair, Scorsese protrays the world surrounding Jesus in all its realism. It’s very likely that many people at the time didn’t bathe a lot. Even Jesus looks, for lack of a better word, dirty, at times.
A scene in which Jesus and Judas meet John the Baptist (Andre Gregory) at a river as men and women, naked as jaybirds, perform chants and even rubbing blood on their skin. John, himself, is only wearing a loincloth as he preaches to the people with long dishelved hair like a frantic zealot. There are other scenes in which possessed people come out of caves and pits in the ground naked and dirty as Jesus touches them casting out the demons.
But the movie is a wonderful look at what someone can do with so little and such a short time to do it. The famous Sermon on the Mount is filmed with less than two dozen people, not the massive crowds as it’s been portrayed in other media. There’s a likelihood that Jesus probably only spoke to a smaller group of people. There were a lot of prophets and zealots at the time. I doubt they would have come from much distance to listen to one person.
Now, for the most controversial part of the movie. After he is condemned and ordered to be crucified by Pontius Pilate (David Bowie), Jesus is strip naked on the cross after being whipped and tortured. This is really what the Romans did. The crucifixion is actually the most accurate as the Romans would ordered people be tied to the crosses as well as being nailed. Just nailing them could fail with their skin slipping through due to the weight of their bodies.
While on the cross, Jesus has a vision of his guardian angel, a young girl (Juliette Caton), who tells Him this has all just been a test. God is proud of Him for what He has done and reminds Jesus of the story of Abraham and that He doesn’t have to die. She sets Jesus free telling Him He isn’t the Messiah.
Later, He is taken to an oasis where he marries Mary and they consummate with Jesus impregnating her. This raised controversy over depictions of Jesus engaging in sex. But Scorsese doesn’t make the scene pornographic. But when a pregnant Mary dies, angered Jesus is consoled by the angel. He leaves to seek out Lazarus’ sisters, Mary (Randy Danson) and Martha (Peggy Gormley) who offered Him food and wine after his 40 days in the desert. He begins a family with them raising children.
As He nears middle-age, Jesus meets Saul/Paul (Harry Dean Stantion) who is preaching about how he was a murderer and criminal before Jesus blinded him on the road to Damascus and changed his life. Paul talks about how Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected. However, upon hearing this, Jesus gets angry that Paul is lying to people about His life as God actually saved Him from the cross. But Paul dismisses him saying that the Resurrected Christ is what matters to people.
In old age as the Jewish Rebellion begins, Jesus on His death bed is visit by Peter, Nathaniel (Leo Burmester) and John (Michael Been) to pay their respects. Also with them is Judas, an old man himself, who is angry at Jesus calling Him a traitor. He finally tells Jesus that the guardian angel was actually Satan in disguise who appears in the form of a flame shooting up from the ground mocking Him for living the life of a man.
Withered, Jesus crawls through the burning city of Jerusalem before speaking to God about how wrong He was to doubt God screaming, “I want to be the Messiah!” This causes Jesus to come back to the Golgotha as He is back on the cross. Realizing it has been all a dream or fantasy, He is overcome His last temptation and dies peacefully after proclaiming “It is accomplished!”
The criticism has been that the movie doesn’t show the Resurrection, but it doesn’t need to. This is about Jesus’ life as a man, not as an immortal god. To show the Resurrection would ruin the movie. Kazantzakis, himself, when talking about the book said by Jesus realizing He has to die on the cross, makes Him different than the other prophets and zealots of the time. Jesus has to realize He is different. In fact, Scorsese and his editor Thelma Schoonmaker, leave in a little “divine intervention.” Sunlght bled into the film roll during the shooting of Jesus’ death on the cross, but only appeared after He closes His eyes. This caused some flickering of lights.
Why ruin should a beautiful ending to a spiritual movie with some Simpson’s Poochie-like scene of Jesus ascending to Heaven. We all know He was resurrected. It’s like in other biopic movies that portray real-life people dying when they don’t need to. It’s unnecessary to the plot. I’ve heard some people say this was the first time Jesus’ crucifixion was shown as a victory and I think that fits with the tone of the movie. This is a movie about Jesus’ battle with Himself.
Unfortunately, many people didn’t see it that way. The movie was already full of controversy while in production with false accusations Jesus was gay. Kazantzakis faced similar criticism when the book was published. Despite a title card saying it’s not based on the gospels but a fictional exploration, some people argued it was blasphemy regardless.
It’s ironic that Christianity is rooted in a man going against the grain, challenging the status quo and breaking down the nomal barriers at the time, it’s become a religion so full of following one narrow path. Any criticism or questions are met with ugliness. It’s even more ironic Scorsese says he had death threats. A Catholic group set off an incediary device at a Paris theater that injured and burned 13 people with sulfuric acid.
Non-violent protests in North America led to some movie theater chains refusing to show it. Later when it went on the home video market, Blockbuster and Hollywood Video refused to carry it on their shelves. At one time, even Wal-Mart reportedly refused to sell it. That has changed as I got a DVD copy through them in 2020. Like I said, it’s ironic that so many people were quick to protest and condemn a movie about someone who was condemned in his own time.
I’ve often drawn comparisons between Last Temptation and It’s A Wonderful Life. They’re both movies that focus on men who are unsure of their paths in life, trying to continue the work their fathers have started. They buck heads with the more powerful people in their communities. And in great doubt, they both question their own lives and whether it all matters. Finally, they are shown an alternative world to put in perspective what impact they have had. Only then do they realize their true importance.
In the end, I feel this is a more religious and especially more spiritual movie than movies like Ben-Hur, King of Kings and The Greatest Story Ever Told that followed a more traditional plot. There have been many other movies made since then focusing on alternative views Jesus’ life without the controversy, such as The Young Messiah and Last Days in the Desert where Ewan McGregor plays both Jesus and Satan. On South Park and Family Guy, Jesus is often portrayed in more comical ways. While it might anger some, there isn’t much controversy especially in a world now where one social media post can ruin someone’s life.
Like Christianity, The Last Temptation isn’t a movie for everyone. But I think for a person like Scorsese, who was raised Catholic, and screenwriter, who was raised a Calvinist but became an Episcopalian, the movie is still respectful of religious themes. I don’t doubt that Scorsese, Schrader or even Kazantzakis, who was Greek Orthodox, set out to make a blasphemous story. I think they probably love Jesus and His life more than we give them credit. If the Bible is open to our own spiritual interpretation, then so should be how we perceive Christ?
What do you think? Please comment.