The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
★★★ / ★★★★
Jesus of Nazareth (Willem Dafoe), a carpenter, journeys to Jerusalem, along with his friend, Judas (Harvey Keitel), to be crucified and die for the sins of all people.
Though the premise is familiar, this is not the version of Jesus polished by religious groups and popular culture. Based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, “The Last Temptation of Christ,” directed by Martin Scorsese, portrays Jesus Christ as both a divine being and, more interestingly, a man full of crippling self-doubt and contradictions.
What fascinated me was the qualities that made the title character human. Raised by Catholic parents and forced to attend school that requires religious studies for several years, I am somewhat familiar with Jesus’ journey to the cross including the key figures he encounters along the way. It is refreshing to see a different interpretation of the events compared to what is on traditional inscriptions and teachings. Scorsese approaches the material with confidence and tunnel vision focus. He honors the filmmaking by being true to what kind of story he wishes to make.
The relationship between Jesus and Judas is not exactly a friendship, even though the word is mustered once or twice, but a symbiosis between men of faith. Jesus’ decision to manipulate Judas, who desperately wants to believe that the son of God is completely devoted to what he is instructed to do, holds intrigue because the material tends to underline both characters’ flaws and fears. Their partnership unfolds in a logical way.
The film is shot beautifully. When the camera pulls back to absorb the beauty of the barren desert or quiescent lake as Jesus walks on the foreground, it is breathtaking. The experience is similar to looking at a postcard and on it is an inviting world. When the intense gust of wind dances around the unseen microphones, I felt transported.
However, the acting from some of the supporting actors is distracting. Keitel’s decision to maintain his Brooklyn accent is a constant reminder that he is an actor playing Judas. During his most serious scenes, I caught myself feeling detached because of the way he enunciates of certain words. Furthermore, Jesus’ angel (Juliette Caton), a little girl, is so doe-eyed and delivers her lines so heavily pure, I wondered why the director did not feel the urge to do more reshoots until her performance did not come across so forced. Either that or she should have been recast. It is necessary that Dafoe gives the most convincing performance. And he does.
“The Last Temptation of Christ,” based on the screenplay by Paul Schrader, is unjustly mired in controversy. I found it daring and, yes, even iconoclastic. But let us not forget that the movie is based on a novel. If your faith is as strong as you claim, you will not allow an interpretation to shake the foundation of your beliefs. If anything, you should keep an open-mind–which shows strength. What is deserving of fear are those people who think that what they believe in is completely, unwaveringly correct. There is a fine distinction between faith and zealotry.