The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

This movie was received with a lot of negative vibes. Generally, people only object to artistic license when it concerns recent historical figures, like Kennedy and Nixon. This is why Oliver Stone gets into so much trouble. On the other hand, people will tolerate any kind of distortion of historical figures from distant times. 

Most of the time.

But there are exceptions. Christ is one of them.

For every individual, Christ has a personal meaning, and that often involves beliefs held steadfast from childhood, and/or beliefs that involve faith and trust in the people who instilled the beliefs in us. Therefore, when somebody else shows us his own personal interpretation, and that interpretation is unusual and in conflict with our own, we react with our emotions. That's why this movie was so controversial. 


One of the reasons for the controversy centered around Mary Magdalene, in some graphic scenes of sex and nudity, as portrayed (beautifully, I think) by Barbara Hershey. Breasts, buns and pubic hair.

various other women appear topless (at the bazaar) or naked (at the baptismal site)

But I don't think it is possible to argue that it is not a deeply spiritual story. The eponymous book, by the famed Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis ("Zorba the Greek") is one of my 10 favorite books and, in my opinion, probably one of the 10 or so truly great literary achievements of the 20th century, on a literary level with the best of Joyce and Nabokov, and perhaps greater in some respects than either, because Joyce and Nabokov are the masters of language, but Kazantzakis is the master of the spirit. With this book, he asks a simple question - what would life have been like for Christ - real life, now - if he had been both man and God, and his human side needed time to understand the responsibilities of his divine side and the will of the Father. Wouldn't Satan's temptations, for example, prey upon the weaknesses of a human side with human needs and limitations and the ever-troublesome free will? Assuming Judas was a real man and not just a melodramatic Snidely Whiplash cartoon bad guy, what would have motivated Judas to betray his master? Just money? Nah, has to be something much deeper than that.

It is a simple story, beautifully told. Not at all iconoclastic, just a deeply-realized personal vision that takes Christ's duality of nature completely seriously and tries to understand it. "Mystical" might be the right word.

Roger Ebert wrote a beautiful sentence about this movie, both accurate and sublimely worded, and I can't hope to better it. "The film has offended those whose ideas of God and man it does not reflect. But then, so did Jesus."

Martin Scorsese directed, and he just tried to keep himself out of the way and let Kazantzakis' story unfold accurately. He did tons of research to make sure that he got the visuals and all elements of the time period exactly right. For example, he approached The Last Supper with the same seriousness that Kazantzakis took toward homoousia. He assumed it really happened, and therefore portrayed it as it actually would have looked, not as it was painted in the Renaissance (a beautiful visual). He hired the best actors he could find, and he put it all together beautifully.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 1.85:1

  • Full-length commentary by director, star, composer and a film critic

  • various research articles about period details

Is the film really a great masterpiece, as some have argued? I don't know. Scorsese did a magnificent job, but I think the story is too internal to translate to a perfect movie. The book is more of a theological argument than a story, sometimes presenting all sides of the argument in the form of character voices. Deep spirituality makes a good backdrop for a book, since a book can be our companion for days, but doesn't necessarily make an ideal setting for a great movie, a medium which has only two hours of our lives to make its impact.

It's a very good movie, an important movie, no question about it, but one with limited appeal. I really admire this film, but it's really not much to my taste, and judging from the general reactions to it, not much to the mass taste either. 

Tuna's thoughts

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) Scoopy wrote extensively about this Martin Scorsese film when the Criterion Edition was released. It is about Christ's final temptation on the cross, where he is tempted by a quiet life with Mary Magdalene. The film is not attempting to present a bible pageant, but rather deals with the struggle of good vs. evil that is within each of us -- even Christ. It takes some poetic license with events in the Gospels, but does an excellent job, in my opinion.

The Christian Right was in a furor over this film because they claimed it was sacrilegious to depict Christ being tempted, and because there was nudity. The temptations of Christ in the desert, in the Garden of Gethsemini and on the cross are found in the bible. It is difficult for me to believe that a prostitute like Mary Magdalene would not expose body parts. In short, there is nothing any more sacrilegious in this film than in the bible itself. As far as their basic quarrel with nudity, let me quote Woody Harrelson in The People vs Larry Flynt. "If they have a problem with the female body, let them complain to the manufacturer."

The film was beautifully filmed and painstakingly researched to get the proper look of the time. The transfer is excellent. I am torn on a grade, but any film that generated this much controversy, and looks this good, was seen by many, and is therefore a B-.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: three and a half stars. Ebert 4/4, BBC 4/5, Maltin 3/4.

  • Rotten Tomatoes summary. 33 articles on file, 91% positive reviews

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 7.3 
  • With their dollars ... a box office disaster for a Scorsese film - only $8 million domestic gross.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a B or B-. It is a brilliant movie in many ways. Mainstream moviegoers stayed away in droves, but as Tuna points out- everybody talked about it, it looks great, it's from an important work of literature, it's directed beautifully by Martin Scorcese, and it forced people into deep discussions of important topics. That's gotta add up to more than a genre picture.

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