In 1955, author Nikos Kazantzakis published his think piece of a novel, The Last Temptation of Christ, and, of course, created a shit-storm of controversy among the more fundamentalist factions of Christianity. Kazantzakis had dared to delve into that dark corner of Christian doctrine – what exactly had Satan used to try and tempt Jesus into escaping the final torment of crucifixion, thereby negating the primary tenet of the movement?
What could you possibly offer a man who has given-up everything that makes life worth living for the ordinary man and is now suffering immense pain for a collection of ideas? This question, as addressed by the author of the life-embracing Zorba the Greek, was a no-brainer. You tempt him with everything he has missed – love, family, long life, even sex – in exchange for ending the self-sacrifice being endured on behalf of the ungrateful.
It’s a logical argument that really goosed the devout who see the world in stark extremes of “good” and “evil”, and one that had fascinated the spiritual side of director Martin Scorsese from the time Barbara Hershey gave him a copy of the book while they were filming Boxcar Bertha decades earlier. Little did he know that his creative effort this time would make the controversies resulting from Taxi Driver and Raging Bull look like an Easter Pageant, as it were.
Scorsese rarely filmed outside of New York City, his natural element, and this film would drop him into the Moroccan desert. He had to work with an incredibly slim budget, originally $14 million now halved to $7 million. Luckily, he gathered a dedicated troupe of actors including Hershey (Mary Magdalene), Harvey Keitel (Judas), Harry Dean Stanton (Saul/Paul) and David Bowie (Pilate). Willem Dafoe – no stranger to controversial roles himself – was cast as Jesus.
Paul Schrader, who penned both Taxi Driver and Raging Bull screenplays, was on hand, as were Scorsese reliables, Thelma Schoonmaker and Michael Ballhaus, editor and cinematographer, respectively. They had three months and limited funds to film a Biblical epic – in the middle of a dessert – based on a book that had double decade reputation as heresy. What could possible go wrong?
Not much, actually. Although Scorsese considered the shoot as “working in a constant state of emergency”, he created his most thoughtful work to date. Keitel’s accent may have been a Judas by way of Little Italy, but Hershey positively glowed as Magdalene, the original hooker with a heart of gold. Dafoe’s spot-on interpretation of Jesus was exactly right for the material and, thanks to the slim budget, all the usual big sets and costumes we had come to associate with sword and sandal Biblical epics were tossed aside for a sparse, introspective look and feel.
Peter Gabriel, who was in charge of the score, gathered a who’s who of world music composers from Africa, Asia and the Middle East to contribute to what would become one of the most successful films scores ever produced. It’s beauty and simplicity added an aura of authenticity to the film that could never have been achieved by the clichéd orchestral scores that boomed away in the background of previous Bible epics.
Scorsese’s piece de resistance was the dream/hallucination sequence that graced the last third of the film – Satan’s temptation. As Jesus hangs from the cross in agony, fulfilling his duty, a child appears to temporarily remove his spirit and guide him through “what could be”, should he decide to forsake his destiny. What he presents to Jesus is a logical and simple argument, a promise of a normal, long-lived life filled with love, children and, most appealing, normalcy. It’s a fantastic, life-affirming sequence and, unfortunately, one that drove the Christian purists absolutely nuts.
Protestors set up picket lines at theaters, several church leaders denounced the film as blasphemy and seven countries banned the film from being shown. Two of the countries – The Philippines and Singapore – maintain the ban to this day. In Paris, a Christian fundamentalist group set off a firebomb in a cinema that was showing the film, several injuring several patrons. On top of all that, the film tanked at the box office.
Time has been kinder to The Last Temptation of Christ. Scorsese’s interpretation has not only the devotion and suffering required, but also a zesty appreciation for life. He presents the argument of a very real and authentic temptation that could break any zealot from his cause, making the ultimate decision to stay the course all the more inspiring. By discarding the image of a coiffed, blond Jesus and the grand trappings associated with the genre, and by introducing a viable argument that could wrestle handily with any dogmatic boundaries, Scorsese took the plunge and made a minimalist classic that’s bursting with ideas. Few contemporary audiences have seen the film, but if you love cinema – and Martin Scorsese’s work – do yourself a big favor. Find it and watch it.