The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Screenplay by Paul Schrader, based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis
Produced by Barbara De Fina
Running time: 164 minutes
Should I Care?
It was a long shot that Martin Scorsese’s passion project The Last Temptation of Christ — filmed after almost five years of false starts and dashed hopes — was going to live up to its immense expectations. Then on its way to a theater relatively near you, the film ignited a culture battle between a splinter group of evangelical Christians and their old adversary Hollywood. The dust settled some time ago, but the movie that sparked a public outcry is an ambitious failure at best, a laborious art film at worst. Envisioned as a contemporary revitalization of the message of Christ — love for all creatures, even if it means turning the other cheek against your enemy — the disappointment of the picture is that it remains mired in the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, which was born out of the author’s experience living in Nazi occupied Greece. The film feels lost in that time, deeply philosophical, swimming in abstraction. Instead of making Jesus more palatable, the effect is it more distancing than the filmmakers probably intended.
Willem Dafoe — between Platoon and Mississippi Burning and all but promising to break out as a leading man — was great casting, combing all the vulnerability and strength you’d imagine from a Biblical prophet. Right to left the film is supremely well cast, with Harry Dean Stanton as Paul and David Bowie as Pontius Pilate in particular doing beautiful work. Peter Gabriel composed the musical score, drawing from North African, Turkish, Greek and Armenian instrumentation in keenly subtle, introspective and evocative ways. There are bursts of visual energy scattered through the film, with the camera sweeping through a fig orchard for the memorable opening shot, but much of the 164-running time feels like what it probably was, a long, dry crawl to get the movie — any movie about Jesus — made. As much as inner monologue, theatrical staging and supernatural imagery dull the film, it did make me think longer and deeper about the life and legacy of Jesus than just about any Biblical film ever made.
So, What’s This About?
Awakened from a nap by a powerful migraine, Jesus (Willem Dafoe) experiences physical pain manifested from a spiritual struggle raging inside him. A Jewish carpenter plying his trade building crucifixes for the Roman occupying forces in Israel, he incurs the wrath of Judas (Harvey Keitel), who accuses Jesus of being a disgrace, a “Jew killing Jews”. Self-flagellating himself before carrying wood to the crucifixion site, Jesus is cursed and hit with rocks by the people of Nazareth. The prostitute Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey) spits in his face despite the attempts of his mother Mary (Verna Bloom) to protect her son. The execution of Lazurus (Tomas Arana) — nailed to the cross on charges of sedition — tortures Jesus, and he leaves home to determine whether it’s God or the devil plaguing him. He visits Mary Magdalene at a brothel and asks her forgiveness, but after being rejected by Jesus in her youth, Mary is not yet able to forgive him.
On the edge of the desert, Jesus comes to a monastery, where an aging master (Roberts Blossom) invites him to stay the night. The following morning, Jerobeam (Barry Miller) informs Jesus that the man he spoke to had already died; the monk interprets this as a communication from God. Judas intercepts Jesus on orders to kill him, but claiming to have been purified, Jesus is unafraid. Judas asks what the secret is and is told “Pity for man. I feel pity for everything.” In order to understand, Judas accompanies Jesus on his travels. He begins to build followers by proposing that justice is what they’re hungry for. A preacher baptizing Jews in the River Jordan, John the Baptist (Andre Gregory) is convinced that Jesus is a true prophet, but tells him that love is not enough. If a tree is poisonous, you have to take an ax and cut it down. While Judas is also unwilling to turn the other cheek on his enemies, Jesus comes to believe that spiritual salvation is not in war, but in his own self-sacrifice.
Who Should Be Held Responsible?
A psychological examination of the self-doubts that might have plagued Jesus while he was a man, Nikos Kazantzakis’ 1955 novel The Last Temptation survived attempts by the Greek Orthodox Church to ban it the author’s native country. Published in the United States in 1960 under the title The Last Temptation of Christ, the novel was embraced as a counterculture text by Americans moving away from religious dogma and searching for their own spiritual answers. One of the book’s fans was Barbara Hershey, who in 1971 was shooting a B-movie in Arkansas titled Boxcar Bertha when she realized her director was working through some of his own spiritual struggles by making films. Hershey gave him a copy of the book. A slow reader, Martin Scorsese took until the decade’s end to finish it, but was already determined to adapt the book into a film. In 1976, his agent Harry Ufland acquired the film rights from Kazantzakis’ widow. Paul Schrader — who adapted Raging Bull for Scorsese — turned in a first draft in 1981.
Paramount Pictures agreed to finance The Last Temptation of Christ. Scorsese polished the script with Jay Cocks, Aidan Quinn cast as Jesus and sets were constructed in Israel for the production, slated to begin shooting January 1984. But as the budget escalated to $16 million and the studio was pestered with letters from evangelical Christians upset about the book, Paramount pulled the plug. Efforts to set the project up elsewhere faltered for the next three years, until Michael Ovitz — head of Creative Artists Agency — took over as Scorsese’s agent. Universal Pictures quickly agreed to distribute the picture, partnering with Cineplex Odeon to finance the reduced budget of $6.5 million. With Aidan Quinn unavailable, Willem Dafoe took over the role of Jesus and shooting finally commenced October 1987 in Morocco. Met with open hostility by a relatively small number of evangelical and Catholic groups, The Last Temptation of Christ opened in August 1988 to the most intense protests ever leveled at a movie in the United States.
How’d They Do It?
Martin Scorsese heard about The Last Temptation of Christ while attending NYU, but it was after he’d wrapped Boxcar Bertha 1972 that Barbara Hershey handed Scorsese the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. During the sound mix for Taxi Driver, Scorsese instructed his agent Harry Ufland to negotiate an option for the film rights. Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler — producing New York, New York for Scorsese and lining up Raging Bull — would produce and to adapt a script, Scorsese had in mind Paul Schrader. In Schrader on Schrader & Other Writings, the screenwriter recalled, “The greatness of the book is its metaphorical leap into the imagined temptation; that’s what separates it from the Bible and makes it a commentary upon it. If I could have come up with a similar kind of inspiration I would have loved to do something like that myself — if I had written a Christ film from the Bible I would have come up with something similar to keep it fresh, some hook. The great hook of The Last Temptation of Christ is the idea of the reluctant God — the person whom God is imposing himself on — that’s pure Kazantzakis.”
Schrader recalled, “As soon as I read it I knew that it had to open with narration, and with a description of a migraine. And as soon as I knew that, I knew the tone — there is this kid with these vicious headaches and he just doesn’t know what to make of them. It’s a 600 page novel and a 100 page script, so I had to throw out a lot, and then I added new scenes as well. Essentially what I did was to make a long list of everything that happens in the novel, every single event, and then put a check mark beside the events that related to things I was interested in — how they related to the struggle ‘What does God want of me?’; or how they related to the central triangle of the film, which is Jesus, Judas and Magdalene — and just focus on these elements.” Schrader ended up with about thirty-five scenes. He added, “It’s really much more of a psychological film about the inner torments of the spiritual life; it’s not trying to create a holy feeling. That’s what the book is like, that’s what Marty wanted and that’s the script I wrote.”
In March 1982, Schrader turned in a first draft. Jeffrey Katzenberg, head of production at Paramount Pictures, was so eager to work with producer Irwin Winkler that he expressed interest in Scorsese’s passion project. Winkler was dubious that a studio with movies like Grease 2 and Airplane II: The Sequel on its slate would want to make The Last Temptation of Christ. Scorsese recalled, “I had one meeting with Barry Diller, the head of the company, along with Jeff Katzenberg and Michael Eisner, and when I was asked why I wanted to make this film, I replied ‘So I can get to know Jesus better.’” He added, “In a way all my life I wanted to do that: first I was going to be a priest, but it didn’t work out. The idea of loving and forgiving one’s enemies seemed so obvious and Gandhi had shown that it could be put into practice. I felt that maybe the process of making this film would make me feel a little more fulfilled. Their reaction was very sweet, but they didn’t want that answer.” When Scorsese added that he saw the film as a low budget character drama, Paramount opened up its checkbook.
Scorsese, Robert Chartoff & Irwin Winkler landed in Israel for a location scout in January 1983. Art director Boris Leven began designing sets. Casting began that summer. Schrader revealed, “You know, originally this was written, again, with DeNiro in mind. But DeNiro didn’t want to play it, and as he said at the time, he said, ‘No one will believe me in a sheet.’ And I suspect that maybe he was right. Although I would have liked to have seen him take up the challenge.” Christopher Walken, John Malkovich, Jonathan Pryce and Eric Roberts auditioned for the role of Jesus reading opposite Harvey Keitel’s Judas. Aidan Quinn — set to make his screen debut in a teen exploitation flick called Reckless — was the actor both Scorsese and the studio agreed to cast. Once transportation and various permits were factored in, a schedule of 100 days and a budget of $16 million was forecast. Dubious about flagging support at Paramount, as well as the daunting prospect of shooting in Israel, Irwin Winkler dropped out. The studio tapped Jon Avnet to replace him and with a reduced budget of $11.5 million, shooting was scheduled to begin January 1984.
The first religious leader to target The Last Temptation of Christ was Reverend Donald Wildmon, a United Methodist preacher from Tupelo, Mississippi. A group of Lutheran nuns headquartered in Arizona calling themselves The Sisters of Mary — who’d condemned the play Godspell as being blasphemous — also launched a crusade against the film, which the sisters pegged a “gross distortion of the actual Biblical account of Jesus’ life up to the Crucifixion”. By October, 5,000 pieces of mail a week were being delivered to the corporate headquarters of Paramount’s parent company Gulf + Western in New York. Many of the letters suspiciously featured the same passages and postmarks in calling for The Last Temptation of Christ to be stopped from being made. But citing both the escalating production costs and the evangelical outcry coming through the mail, on Thanksgiving Day, Barry Diller summoned Scorsese and Ufland to his office and informed them that Paramount was canceling the production.
Scorsese returned to his low budget roots in New York and directed After Hours (1985), but Last Temptation was still on his mind. In 1986, Harry Ufland made overtures to Island Films, Vestron, United Artists, Imagine Films and Hemdale about financing the picture. Scorsese took a job directing The Color of Money, and was introduced to Paul Newman’s agent, the co-founder and head of Creative Artists Agency, Michael Ovitz. Agreeing to let Ovitz represent him, Scorsese was asked what he wanted most. The director replied, The Last Temptation of Christ. Ovitz turned to Tom Pollock, the new chairman of Universal Pictures. Ovitz suggested that a multi-picture deal with Scorsese would be good for the studio. All Pollock had to do first was figure out how to get Last Temptation made. Universal had acquired a 49.7% stake in Canadian based theater chain Cineplex Odeon. Pollock proposed that if the exhibitor came in as a 50% equity partner to finance The Last Temptation, Cineplex Odeon would attain distribution rights both in Canada and in U.S. markets where they currently had theaters.
In March 1987, Universal gave Scorsese and his wife Barbara De Fina — now producing — the go-ahead to commence location scouting in Morocco for their stripped down version of Last Temptation budgeted at $6.5 million. With Aidan Quinn busy filming Crusoe in the Seychelles Islands, to play Jesus, Scorsese turned to Willem Dafoe, who months earlier had received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for Platoon. Casting director Cis Corman stated, “There was an innocence about Aidan, and a charm, you know, and Willem I always thought of as being stronger and deeply emotional.” In addition to Quinn, a number of cast members assembled for the 1984 version of Last Temptation were not coming back. Paul Sorvino was committed to the CBS cop show The Oldest Rookie; Tomas Arana took the role of Lazurus instead. Kathy Baker was busy shooting Clean and Sober, so the role of Lazurus’ sister Martha went to Peggy Gormley. Sting was busy on an Amnesty International concert tour; David Bowie took the role of Pontius Pilate. To the dismay of the studio, one actor who was back in the movie was Harvey Keitel as Judas, whose Lower East Side accent was too thick for Tom Pollock’s taste.
Recording an audio commentary for the Criterion Collection DVD in 1997, Scorsese stated, “When you saw the old spectaculars, you know, the curtains would open up and a big screen would come on, stereophonic sound would come up and you’d have this extraordinary music, very glorious, and everybody would pretty much speak with a British accent and beautiful poetry in a way, as much as possible, beautifully written dialogue, like in Ben Hur, which is some excellent dialogue. Even in The Robe, the very first Cinemascope film has that. King of Kings, Nicholas Ray’s film, and that sort of thing. These are pictures I always loved as a child. I always wanted to make one. But what I understood — by the time we got to make this picture — what I understood is that if the audience heard that language and heard a British accent, they could be safe, they could turn off, they could say it’s just a Biblical epic movie. Here, if they hear the language spoken by Keitel, by other people in the film, it’s like somebody standing on a street corner and engaging you in this argument.” He added, “The idea was that it should be Jesus like on 8th Avenue and 42nd Street, you see.”
After five years of preparations, The Last Temptation of Christ commenced a 55-day shooting schedule October 1987 in Morocco. There was no second unit. Collaborating with director of photography Michael Ballhaus for the third film in a row, Scorsese ended up shooting most of the film on dusty streets or hillsides, or among ruins. The only sets constructed were the monastery huts in the desert; the monastery interiors were built in a stable in the town of Meknes. Jay Cocks believed that the aesthetic actually benefited the picture. “When you’re working at that kind of energy, under that kind of time structure, you really can get a kind of a boldness that might not come through otherwise if you’re a little fatter and a little slower.” Scorsese’s only comments to the press were a brief statement he issued in January 1988 reaffirming his passion for the story both as a filmmaker and Christian, and urging viewers to withhold judgment until they got a look at the film.
Though Scorsese — huddled with editor Thelma Schoonmaker in New York — assembled 40 minutes of footage for Tom Pollack and Universal executive Sean Daniel in January, as the director’s custom, Scorsese did not grant interviews while immersed in post-production. By April 1988, rumors were swirling on talk radio that The Last Temptation of Christ was some kind of sex film about Jesus. Reverend Donald Wildmon was among those evangelical Christians who’d campaigned against the project in 1983 now clamoring to get a look at the film. He procured what he believed was a copy of the shooting script, but was later verified to be an early draft Paul Schrader had written and was used during the audition process in ’83. Wildmon later wrote, “Never in almost 12 years of fighting the media’s bias against Christian values had I ever come across a more blatant attack on Christianity than this movie. I realized that if there ever were a time for Christians to let the Hollywood elite know that the entertainment industry’s constant Christian-bashing should stop, this was it.”
In June, Wildmon was making headlines by demanding that CBS remove three seconds of a Mighty Mouse cartoon by animator Ralph Bakshi that allegedly showed cocaine being snorted. Now Wildmon spearheaded a campaign to punish Universal’s parent company MCA with a boycott by the estimated 330,000 evangelical Christians who subscribed to his American Family Association (AFA) Journal. Ministries like Campus Crusade For Christ, and Focus on the Family that had struck a far more conciliatory tone in the past now sided with Wildmon, believing that Universal had acted in bad faith by barring Christian groups from the screening process. On July 16, about 200 members of a fundamentalist Baptist church in downtown Los Angeles assembled outside Universal Studios with banners and signs picketing the studio. Four days later, a smaller contingent protested outside MCA chairman Lew Wasserman’s home in Beverly Hills. Then on July 20, KKLA-FM talk show host John Stewart organized a rally outside Universal Studios estimated at 2,500 people.
Paul Schrader later commented, “You have to understand that most of the people who attacked the movie didn’t bother to see it. You know, perhaps rightly so because their attack really wasn’t based on the film itself but the idea of the film. There was never an attack on the film where it wasn’t combined with an appeal for money. You know, one of the easiest ways to raise money is to say ‘Hollywood is against our Lord, we are defending our Lord. Please send us money to help us in this fight’. So it was an economic engine for those who were opposed to the film. I’m not saying they had purely cynical motives, but it certainly helps when you can latch onto a cause that not only brings you media attention but it also brings you income.” The original plan was to premiere The Last Temptation of Christ at the New York Film Festival in September. Realizing that whether the protests grew in strength or fizzled out that neither option bode well for the film, Universal chose to open it a month early, in August 1988.
The first exhibitors to back away from The Last Temptation of Christ were the smaller chains: Premiere Theaters in Texas, Wometco Theatres in Florida, Greater Huntington Theatres in West Virginia. Wisconsin’s biggest theater chain Marcus Theatre refused to screen the film. Carmike Cinemas — the nation’s fifth largest chain — declined. Edwards Cinemas, with half the screens in Orange County and another 60 elsewhere in Southern California, announced that they would not screen Last Temptation. General Cinemas — the third largest theater chain, with headquarters in Boston — buckled under pressure from Cardinal Law, the archdiocese who’d called for a boycott of the film. Tom Pollock conceded that part of the problem was that exhibitors were given a window of only two days to see the film, speculate how unpopular it was going to be with their customers and decide whether they wanted to book it or not. Most of the country’s major theater chains — AMC, United Artists, Mann’s — agreed to book the new Scorsese picture in select markets.
The Last Temptation of Christ drew mixed reviews, evoking positive and negative reactions often from the same critic. Janet Maslin, The New York Times: “In contrast with the real spiritual torment conveyed by many of Mr. Scorsese’s other characters, his version of Jesus is a controlled, slightly remote figure, despite the screenplay’s many allusions to his pain. Fortunately, Willem Dafoe has such a gleaming intensity in this role, so much quiet authority, that the film’s images of Jesus are overwhelming even when the thoughts attributed to him are not.” Hal Hinson, The Washington Post: “Watching it, you feel as if you’re trapped inside a hallucination, the meaning of which is only partly comprehensible. Yet you can sense Scorsese’s commitment to his message and his passion for his art in every frame. He is working out of the center of his talents — and his obsessions — as a filmmaker. And undeniably, there’s a prodigious greatness on display here. But just as undeniably, it is failed work.”
On Siskel & Ebert At The Movies, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert strongly endorsed the picture. Siskel commented, “The effect — at least on me — was not to trash Jesus, but rather to make His message more accessible; for if He has doubts and fears, we can be more comfortable with our own. It’s a very simple construction and it works beautifully.” Ebert added, “And this movie is a devout movie that does Jesus the compliment of taking Him more seriously than any other movie ever made, so that’s it’s an ironic, I think, contradiction that people who worship Jesus and haven’t seen the film are attacking this film, which is actually more of a religious experience than any other movie they could think of.” Siskel retorted, “The controversy is quite silly. I mean, people can have their objections based on what they’ve seen, of course. But if they haven’t seen it, then it’s just so silly.” Siskel would later place The Last Temptation of Christ #1 on his list of the year’s best films.
Looking back at the furor in 1997, Scorsese decalred, “We didn’t throw this out into theaters for people to be upset, you know. I believe certain things about Christianity and about Jesus and I think it’s just as valid as the person who believes in the fundamental word of the Gospel. I know lots of priests who are for this picture, lots of priests who are not. I’m a Roman Catholic and very often even though we have stipulations of dogma, there’s lots of discussion, open discussion about the relationship with God, to man, vice versa, etcetera, Jesus, all of this, the nature of Jesus, lots of discussion. It’s discussion.” He added, “But we were very disappointed when a very small percentage of people in America were able to skew it in such a way that a lot of people refused to see the film, and that a place like Blockbuster Video to this day does not stack this picture in its racks. In this country you’re supposed to be able to say what you want to say — it’s a free country to do that — but what they did by being so vociferous about it and so loud about it and so strident about it was to make people afraid to go to the theater to see it.”
Where’d You Get All of This?
Scorsese on Scorsese. Edited by David Thompson and Ian Christie. Faber and Faber (1989)
Schrader on Schrader & Other Writings. Edited by Kevin Jackson. Faber and Faber (1990)
The Last Temptation of Christ. DVD audio commentary by Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader and Jay Cocks and Willem Dafoe. The Criterion Collection (1997)
Hollywood Under Siege: Martin Scorsese, The Religious Right and Culture Wars. By Thomas R. Lindlof. The University Press of Kentucky (2008)