Taking inspiration from both the Gospel and Nikos Kazantzakis’ book of the same name, The Last Temptation of Christ offers director Martin Scorsese to channel his unflinching, unguarded beliefs and passions into a piece depicting the death of Jesus Christ. So much of The Bible and its message is open to complete interpretation, and Scorsese uses this to his advantage. He depicts an ancient story with pangs of modernity, both in soundtrack and style. His growth as a director can be seen here, and as his maturity sparks, so too does his adaptation of Christ and his final days among the people of Jerusalem.
With Willem Dafoe as the titular Christ and Harvey Keitel as the betrayer, Judas Iscariot, there is much range for them to toy with. Scorsese is unflinching and brutal, which is a rather sudden surprise considering that, after this, his collaboration on New York Stories was considerably light. He seems to be at a point in his career, here, where he is looking for his own personal salvation. He managed it with Raging Bull as he fought the inner demons, but now he looks for a more literal expression. The Last Temptation of Christ offers this opportunity not just to Scorsese but to his incredible ensemble, particularly David Bowie and Harry Dean Stanton, who provide backbreaking supporting performances.
Dafoe is the most inspiring, though. His performance is marvellous, and he portrays the Son of God with a genuine conviction. That is something he is always capable of, so his immaculate leading role in The Last Temptation of Christ should be no surprise. He is passionate and deeply moved, almost as much as Scorsese is. From the fallout that followed and the controversy surrounding it, the dissipation has left in its wake a truly extraordinary performance. It is a rare moment where director and actor work hand in hand with such a similar vision. Take the scene where Christ yelps “Leave me” at a cluster of snakes. Scorsese zooms in on the clutching fear presented by Dafoe. It is one of the many moments that wish to highlight the clarity Jesus feels, and the subsequent anger Keitel has for his lack of understanding. That rift between the two is played with nicely, and there is simplicity in the shot composition of their many conversations and arguments that plays into the beauty of these performances.
“Maybe God didn’t send you here to kill me.” and as Christ begins to smile at Iscariot, there is a vague understanding bubbling between the two of them. The scene cuts before we hear the verbal reply, but when the two are walking alongside each other, and the white and black binary opposites are present in their wardrobe choices, it is clear to see the impact of the scene. While Scorsese adapts the modern dialect to these ancient texts, it is clear to see why. There is a modern spin presented from time to time that dilutes the actual meaning of the story sometimes, but it is buoyed well by Dafoe’s defiant work. He who casts the first stone and the meaning behind it is displayed, but the outcome of such scenes has a simplicity that steals the beauty from the parable.
While it has been satirised and shamed, adapted with blood, sweat and tears by the many who choose to offer the story of Christ, The Last Temptation of Christ is without question the definitive example of adapting Biblical stories. Scorsese builds the city of Jerusalem with depth, drawing from his own experiences with faith and humanity to depict what he sees as the most personal interpretation of this story he can offer. That he does, and he does it well.