A highly controversial film about the life and human frailties of Jesus Christ, The Last Temptation of Christ (1988, dir. Martin Scorsese) caused quite a stir upon its release. Portraying Jesus as a human man who is tormented by the voice of God as he builds his following and is eventually crucified, the film is led by a fearless Willem Dafoe as Jesus Christ, and backed up with solid performances by Harvey Keitel as Judas Iscariot, and Barbara as Mary Magdalene.
I randomly decided to watch this film over the Easter break, and I’m glad I did. Even though I’m not a religious person, there’s a lot to enjoy about The Last Temptation of Christ – that is, unless you’re offended by its interpretation of the life of Jesus, which many people seemed to be (mild spoilers in that link) at the time of the film’s release. It is important to note that the film is based on a book of the same name, by Nikos Kazantzakis, which is a fictional account of the life of Jesus, and hence takes a number of artistic licenses with the source material. Subtle thematic changes such as Jesus being a carpenter, and also constructing wooden crosses for the Romans, are enough to make people think a little bit deeper about the story at hand.
For me, the central story ripped from Biblical fiction doesn’t have any particular personal significance. However, when confronted by the excellent performance of Willem Dafoe as Jesus Christ, I found that I could relate to Dafoe’s interpretation of the human struggles of the man. I mentioned before that his performance is fearless. It really is, with Jesus depicted as a real man who struggles with the voice of God speaking to him, who is unsure whether this voice is God or the devil, who suffers from a lack of confidence in his own ability to speak up against the injustices of society, and who wonders whether he is doing the right thing at every turn. Dafoe’s performance is nothing less than passionate, and he was the perfect choice for this interpretation. Harvey Keitel’s performance has received quite a bit of criticism, but I enjoyed it – he is a rough, red-headed Judas who isn’t a straight-up villain, but also struggles with the concept of right and wrong.
Scorsese builds an expansive and beautiful world with his direction. Many shots are point of view from above; begging the question, are we seeing the world and matters at hand from the perspective of a God who looks down upon his creation? But Scorsese is just as fearless as Dafoe in not only helming the film, but in his confrontation of the realities of life during Biblical times. In true Scorsese fashion, he doesn’t shy away from blood and guts, but nor are they gratuitous (looking at you, Mel Gibson).
I didn’t expect to enjoy The Last Temptation of Christ as much as I did. I particularly enjoyed the cinematography of Michael Ballhaus, who has collaborated with Scorsese on such films as Goodfellas (1990), The Departed (2006), and Gangs of New York (2002). His use of colour and space is mesmerising to watch, making good use of the sandy colours of the desert, contrasting against colours such as the green of nature or the redness of blood.
Please find below a selection of some of my favourite shots from The Last Temptation of Christ. As always, the film is a lot more beautiful in motion, and the shots have been mixed up to avoid storyline spoilers. Even though the story of Jesus’ quest for divine justice and resultant crucifixion is probably one of the most famous and well-known stories of all time (perhaps for the last 2000 years or so), there are a couple of interesting twists and turns in the film to keep you guessing. A very good film indeed.
Watch the trailer here.