Martin Scorsese/ USA/ 1988 /163 min
Available on Blu-ray Mon 15 Apr 2019
“I believe in the tenets of Catholicism… But the idea of the Resurrection, the idea of the Incarnation, the powerful message of compassion and love — that’s the key.” To know that the director of such films as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, The Departed and The Wolf of Wall Street – Martin Scorsese – is the person behind those words might, at first, appear at odds with the filmmaker who has never shied away from highlighting violent & destructive behaviour in society. However, a deeper look into the oeuvre of one of cinema’s greatest directors reveals a startling obsession with the human spirit – an obsession that is at its clearest in 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ.
A fifteen-year passion project, the film is a “Fictional exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict,” rather than a direct re-telling of the Gospels. Such departures – including a scene in which Jesus and Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey) consummate their marriage – caused considerable controversy at the time of release, so much so that the film found itself either banned or censored for several years in various countries. What this gung-ho criticism ignores, however, is the fact that the screenplay by Paul Schrader is infatuated with the idea of Christ’s struggles to do good and influence others to do the same. It’s as theological as cinema can get without being overly religious.
Willem Dafoe is passionately conflicted as the saviour of mankind, giving a scared but hopeful performance which grounds the film. His preaching is spellbinding, and his anger captivating – but the casting of Caucasian actors in middle-eastern roles should rightfully be held as a notch against the film.
Reportedly working on a tight and tough shooting schedule, Scorsese adopts a minimalist approach that has allowed the film to remain timeless over thirty years since its release. Such stark imagery, alongside Peter Gabriel’s much-celebrated score and Dafoe’s haunting portrayal of arguably the most iconic symbol in Western civilisation, keep the story gripping even during the most sluggish moments of its daunting 163 minute running time.
It would be a foolish errand to knock the film for its deviations from religious texts – given that the novel from which it is adapted is a re-interpreted version of the story we know so well. What the story, and thus the film, manage to achieve is to ponder great questions about life, death and legacy. And even despite its most glaring faults, the legacy of the film lives on by standing on its own two feet amongst some of the greatest works by an American film-making legend. Praise be.