Review by David Carter
Posted on 11 July 2004
In my previous reviews here I’ve focused on a few of cinema’s more infamous titles. Movies like I Spit On Your Grave, Caligula, and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls have reputations that precede them far beyond the doors of the video store. This time we are going to take a look at the pinnacle of “infamous cinema”: The Last Temptation of Christ. This is the greatest example of a film that is talked about more than it is seen. I was 10 when the movie was released and every church, civic group, and school in my entire state drew up petitions to have the movie banned. It was merely done as moral posturing, there was never a chance that the film was going to play anywhere near Birmingham, Alabama. For those of you who don’t know me, telling me I can’t do something is pretty much the best way to ensure that I will do it. Since I’m also pretty damn lazy, I only got around to seeing Last Temptation of Christ for the first time a few years ago. So first things first, lets analyze what all the fuss was about.
Christ in this film is an entirely different entity than the majority of Christians have been exposed to. Kazantzakis wrote the novel to explore what he found to be the most intriguing aspect of the Gospels, the dual nature of Christ. Simultaneously God and man in one body, Kazantzakis was trying to explore this relationship in greater detail. In doing so, Jesus (Willem Dafoe) has all the characteristics of man: desire, fear, and confusion. Herein lies the problem that religious groups had with the film. Depicting Jesus as being faulted is in direct conflict with one of the main tenets of Christian theology: the sinless life of Christ. Now I feel that I can say that pretty much across the board the public who hated LToC didn’t put this much thought into their objections. The main points of contention are the scenes referenced in the title: the last temptation of Christ. The titular event is a fantasy Jesus has while being tempted by Satan while on the cross. In this fantasy, Jesus gets to see what his life would have been like if he was not the Son of God. He marries Mary Magdalen (Barbara Hershey) and has a sex scene with her. The news of the sex scene was broke months before the film was set to be released and is what created the controversy. Admittedly, if not taken in context, reports that a film is coming out with Christ having sex is shocking even to the most jaded person. In the context of the story however, this event loses most of its bite and serves as more of an interesting plot twist instead of blasphemy.
Is the movie actually any good though? Yes and no. I would have to say that Last Temptation of Christ is one of the most schizophrenic films I’ve ever seen. Dafoe and Harvey Keitel (Judas) give amazing performances. They bring more depth to the roles than any of their predecessors. Scorsese’s direction is top notch as well. There are several scenes that pay homage to the great directors of the past in look and feel. One of the film’s strong points is the way it blends the best techniques of the past while tastefully using some (at the time) modern techniques and technologies. On the flip side of the things the film does well are the numerous things that go wrong. Chief of these I believe is the dialogue. The dialogues between Jesus and Judas are wonderfully written and very powerful. Unfortunately these are the only scenes that are memorable, the others drift along on the screen with no real sense of direction. Though nominated for a Golden Globe, I found Barbara Hershey’s Mary to be one of the weakest characters in the film. In my opinion she does not bring enough to the role and plays it much to campy to be taken seriously. Also guilty of not living up to their potential is Harry Dean Stanton as Saul/Paul. I was actually embarrassed for him because his performance was so lackluster. He reduces Christianity’s greatest thinker/teacher/preacher to a used car salesman reading from cue cards. It literally looks as if he wandered on to the set one day and somebody turned the camera on.
In conclusion the controversy may actually be more interesting than the film in this case. Please don’t misunderstand me, Last Temptation of Christ is a good movie, but not as good as some claim it to be. It’s probably worth searching out if you’ve never seen it, but don’t expect it to live up to the hype. The film mainly appeals to the curious or Scorsese completists. In an ironic twist of fate, the stigma surrounding the film got it much more attention than the film probably warrants. The protests definitely cut into the box office, but the film more than likely would not have been a huge success even if it had played every theatre. It now appears to me that all the critical praise the film received originally may have been mostly to spite those who objected to the film. Hollywood and its cottage industries (such as film critics and award shows) closed ranks around Scorsese and film and supported it in defiance of the religious right, who was at the time its main enemy. When you pull back and analyze the film separate from the controversy, you’ll find that Last Temptation of Christ is an average film but worth the effort to see it just so you can say you have.