“Is there a story,” I once asked myself, “where instead of an ordinary person being propped up on a pedestal and touted as a Christ figure, the reverse happens?” I’d long imagined Jesus and Mary Magdalene enjoying an evening in a corner diner, savoring life at its most mundane as any of us might do.
Director Martin Scorsese, who himself loves The Robe and introduces the fiftieth-anniversary edition, places on the screen a book adaptation that I must first describe as “riveting.” For better or worse, the story openly acknowledges and embraces its scriptural divergences, which it uses to create an original if sometimes reckless narrative that mostly remains powerful all the way through.
There’s plenty of food for thought here.
To its credit, The Last Temptation begins with a disclaimer that it is not meant to be a straightforward Biblical account of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. The movie instead sets itself up as an exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict between following the ways of God or of the devil; even still, with a premise like this, comparisons to the Bible are nearly unavoidable. The Word records in Hebrews 4 that Jesus experienced the same temptations common to men and yet did not sin. This movie instead asks, What if He did? What if Jesus repeatedly doubted God, himself, and everyone around him, making himself appear greatly disturbed in much of what he said and did? What if God’s son shared not only our struggles but our moral imperfections, becoming a sort of allegorical “man-figure?”
Willem Dafoe, in the movie’s central role, narrates his internal psychological strifes and other difficulties. He fasts for months. He experiences pain that starts off as a tender feeling and turns into claws inside him. He pushes himself through additional pain, scourging himself when not making crosses at the Romans’ command. Someone enters Jesus’ room suddenly, and it’s none other than Judas, the man who turns Jesus over to the Romans in Matthew 26. In this version of the story, Judas becomes one of the most important characters as he seeks a military triumph over his enemies and questions Jesus’ plans to seek and achieve victory on God the Father’s own terms. A Jew killing Jews and a coward are but two of the titles Judas gives his would-be savior; meanwhile, Jesus plans to pay for his own “sins” with his life, which at this early stage feel like an informed attribute. Unless this is referring to the cross-building, Jesus hasn’t been given time to do much of anything, making his self-loathing feel more awkward than pitiable. It does give a sense of finality, as though much has happened offscreen, only allowing the audience has to join in this story at its end.
While Jesus fights Himself, Judas and other Jews fight Rome; the film suddenly shifts to a short but tense fight scene, with a killing blow just off-screen. Subsequently Jesus carries a crosspiece behind a Roman soldier, with the people addressing the Lord as a traitor. His mother Mary steps in to defend her son, but another woman in garish clothing merely spits on him. The Jews are unable to stop the Romans from executing a man for sedition, and what’s more, Jesus ties the rope down and helps to put the nails in. He then gets spattered with the man’s blood.
Jesus’ internal agonies begin provoking some very odd responses, prompting him to ask God to find someone else and to say that he will crucify all of God’s messiahs. A woman asks if Jesus is being tormented by the devil. Jesus’ answer is haunting: “What if it’s God?” The answers don’t come any more easily as Jesus heads to a marketplace, which happens to be filled with topless women. “Thank you, Lord,” Jesus says, “for bringing me where I did not want to go.” The setting is impressively cosmopolitan, and Jesus is surrounded by people of numerous ethnicities. Many of those people are watching a woman audibly gasp while having sex. Set amid cuisines and other cultural aspects, the woman openly displays her breasts while her client grinds against her. Quite possibly deep in thought, Jesus appears to enter another state of mind while trying to look away. The client looks bored when he walks away after finishing, giving Jesus a moment to contemplate walking toward the girl.
Her name is Mary Magdalene, and upon seeing her visitor, she covers herself and asks apprehensively of his intentions. Jesus apologizes for doing “too many bad things,” returning my such as what concerns, and asks for her forgiveness while saying he’s going out into the desert. Mary, however, is bitter against both him and God, saying the latter took Jesus away from her. She tries to tempt Jesus sexually and is cynically repulsed by his refusals, prompting a realization I force myself to come to terms with: The story begins (at its earliest) in medias res, and we don’t see the establishment or breakdown of Jesus’ and Mary’s relationship. We do see a dying romance between the two that feels unrequited not because of mismatched desire but because of circumstance. Whatever else Jesus may have wanted, He had more important goals to achieve.
The indecision of Jesus
Though another man expresses jealousy of Jesus’ intimate relationship with God, Jesus himself doesn’t consider it a blessing to know what God wants, instead treating God as cynically as Mary treated him earlier. Without much evidence given us, Jesus continues berating himself as a liar and a hypocrite, saying that he lacks courage to tell the truth and only obeys God out of fear. Such internal bitterness is heartbreaking to hear from a modern Christian, no matter what truth it may even hold; how much more tragic is it to hear this from Christ himself, as though this is healthy humility! Dafoe’s Jesus behaves irrationally and is powerfully acted, essentially worshiping fear and blaming his dreams of divinity on the devil.
After Jesus is purified from another temptation, he and Judas begin an embittered working relationship: Judas, who seeks to kill Jesus, is met with and repulsed by an opponent who does not resist him. Indeed, in this version of the story, it is Judas who holds his own leader accountable under threat of death if the latter should stray from his mission.
Jesus’ intervention to save a woman in the middle of being stoned clearly evokes the incident at the beginning of John 8 but is given additional details. Here, for example, several named men stand in favor of their prisoner’s death, but the man Zebedee is condemned for cheating his workers and possibly lying with a widow named Judith. Jesus’ angry face is amazing: Judas and the other characters are generally likable in their performances, but their Lord’s fury contains its own unnerving measure of tranquility.
His telling of the seed on soil (Matthew 13) is changed here: the seed no longer specifically represents God’s word but is broadened to represent love. Sometimes Jesus seems remarkably lucid while speaking of this and similar topics, and other times he appears unstable and overwhelmed by psychological trauma. He’s unpredictable in a way that doesn’t make me want to guess what he’ll do next: while the movie places a welcome emphasis on its storytelling rather than on setting up for an inevitable end, Jesus’ own arc feels so focused on evoking emotion that it sometimes doesn’t seem authentic anymore. No matter how engrossing watching him is, Jesus can only call himself a liar and a hypocrite so many times before this threatens the audience’s empathy: should he be continually embraced and actively supported, or should he be left alone and allowed to succeed or fail by his own decisions?
Occasionally Jesus stops not to simply preach about love but to put it into practice, such as by wiping a woman’s blood-covered feet. The rift between his and Judas’ goals becomes ever clearer throughout the film, with the former wanting freedom for the soul and the latter wanting freedom for Israel. In one of the film’s most powerful monologues, Jesus evokes Luke 11:24 by talking about changing one’s spirit and of replacing internal evil with godliness. He answers the question of how not by appealing to the power of God but by simply referencing “love” as he’s done before, which starts to lose its effectiveness with each repetition.
When John the Baptist enters the story, he speaks with an amazing, devoted fervor that makes Andre Gregory’s performance another of this movie’s finest. The God-given power in his voice is unrelenting. The nude women dancing energetically around him seem neither crass nor particularly relevant, and he is concerned first with honoring Jesus and dealing with idolatry in the world. Jesus is indeed baptized, but it feels odd that his character is so radically changed from its inspiration when John the Baptist seems more or less left alone without overt character flaws.
Jesus stays in one area and refuses to leave it until God speaks to him. For once, he accepts God’s sovereignty, but his character development seems uneven and forced; it’s not entirely clear what causes Jesus’ attitudes to behave one way or another. His outbursts of emotion, when being tempted to care for his own needs at the expense of the world’s, are horrifying to watch. Resisting on his own terms instead of citing Scripture as in Matthew 4, Jesus overcomes the devil’s temptations but doesn’t walk away without scars.
Becoming a messiah
One particular event found in the Bible is played here like a sudden and unexpected plot twist, and it actually works: the story is at its best when it uses its differences from the Gospels to be unpredictable in a way that remains compelling. While various disciples speak of whether Jesus is the Messiah, he himself wields an axe, speaking with utter calm of inviting them not to a celebration but to a war. He pulls out his own heart, which bleeds everywhere.
He then begins working miracles and healing people, grappling with some to cast out the devil while restoring the vision of others, which throws still other people into an uproar. At a wedding, Jesus defends a woman who is nearly thrown out because of her impurity–but if purity is a requisite for attending, then I can’t say I’m deserving, and I don’t know who could. The wedding itself is sealed with an exchange of rings (how far back does that custom go?), and Jesus indeed turns water into wine, giving a smug look that is absolutely hilarious.
While speaking of the “world of God,” Jesus preaches against the amassing of earthly riches at the expense of the poor. Many people think he’s crazy, with one person questioning his authority to speak and another blaming his being unmarried for this, saying that Jesus’ semen is backing up into his brain. Amazingly, even when some people move to stone him, Jesus does not rescind the invitation into the kingdom of God that he gives them. His many followers often come from the “lowest” walks of life, and he speaks of them as an army, whether in the physical or spiritual sense, which becomes one of the movie’s defining moral decisions. His dismissive treatment of his mother, who becomes so confused that she breaks down in tears, is especially hard to understand and sympathize with.
The resurrection of Lazarus gives another interesting insight into the character of this Jesus: when the dead man shows signs of life, Jesus himself is startled and surprised, as though he didn’t expect his divine abilities to work. Lazarus grasps Jesus tightly with his newly operative hands, and it’s kind of creepy to look at a man when his hands are one of the few areas that aren’t completely wrapped up in linens.
As the Word itself records in John 2, Jesus becomes hostile upon discovering that the Temple in Jerusalem is being used as a marketplace and currency exchange. People will be hard-pressed trying to focus on their prayers with so much activity around them, and as such, Jesus picks up money trays and tables and begins smashing them against walls. The people are outraged, but they don’t initially begin fighting back. Coins fly high into the sky and land next to blood. The imagery isn’t very subtle, but it makes its point. Jesus’ statements about “throwing away the law” and being the “saint of blasphemy” are strange, but whether these–such as the former, contrasted with Matthew 5:17–make sense when compared to Scripture or not, little is done with them in the story either way. When he speaks of coming to bring a sword instead of peace, as in Matthew 10:34, he is referring not to the militaristic victory that Judas desires but to the necessity of people prioritizing Jesus even without the approval of their families or existing lifestyles.
Jesus is surrounded by requests for miracles and healing, some of which he rebuffs angrily. His refusal to fulfill the physical or spiritual needs of individuals who are “filled with hate” seems odd, due to how much time he’s spent talking over and over about love, especially in light of Luke 6:35, where God is spoken of as being kind even to the wicked. That being stated, one of the movie’s best decisions is to portray Jesus as a complex individual who can be compassionate but is not always submissive or docile. It’s a stark change from the one-dimensional portrayals he’s sometimes given, and it’s a welcome one.
As the Zealots push toward revolution, Judas works to maintain his unusual kind of loyalty to Jesus, who addresses Judas as the strongest of all his friends. Jesus reads a prophecy from Isaiah 53 and begins speaking in explicit terms of his forthcoming death on the cross. Judas cannot reconcile the necessity of death with Jesus being the Messiah and questions Jesus’ ever-changing plans (“first it’s love, then it’s the axe, and now you have to die!”). In this story, however, even Jesus himself does not understand the details of God’s plan for him. Judas doesn’t believe these words but is understandably worried that Jesus will change his mind again. Other people are convinced that a new government and physical rebellion are in the works, or they want to worship in the Temple without the presence of Rome, or they are displeased to think about crucifixion.
Jesus’ donkey ride through the streets of Jerusalem, complete with an excited crowd waving palm branches, soon becomes a small riot and a question of whether Jesus, who wants to die quickly in battle and not slowly at the hands of the Romans, will decide to fight the oppressors. The Father does not provide the Son with the means to do so, however, and Jesus turns back around, being mocked and pelted by his own followers for his decision. Jesus comes to terms with having to die on a cross, which Judas refuses to accept, and his betrayal–not of Jesus to the Romans but of Jesus’ plan altogether–comes slowly from Jesus’ choices and not quickly with payment. Here, Jesus actively wants Judas to betray him, readily admitting that if he were in Judas’ place, he himself could not do so. As can be said about the rest of this movie, the acting all around is superb.
The Romans have no qualms about attacking the people, who are endangered as Judas has to lead them away. The Passover rituals have already begun, with a visibly slaughtered lamb’s blood being gathered in a cup. The Last Supper takes place, with both men and women appearing to be present, and Jesus offers the bread of his body to the people. His words about sharing the bread heavily evoke his earlier statements about giving freely to the poor, though that miracle oddly seems to be absent from this movie. The wine representing his blood literally becomes that substance in one person’s mouth, at which point Judas refuses to drink any more.
Torn between his desire to live and his mission to fulfill the will of God and offer redemption to the world, Jesus’ bitter tears in the garden of Gethsemane are painful to watch, particularly as he talks about many Bible individuals who were saved while he himself must be crucified. Judas eventually does arrive with others to take Jesus, and Peter does take his sword and slice one man’s ear off (it gets healed). From there, Jesus is turned over to Pontius Pilate.
The last temptation
Pilate of all people is one of the most interesting personalities in the movie, interrogating Jesus with more than a hint of sarcasm and dry wit. Jesus refuses to play along except to mention a Daniel 2 prophecy–then given to King Nebuchadnezzar–and apply it to himself and his heavenly kingdom. Pilate here is more than an official who kowtows to the will of the people, and he is aghast that Jesus wants to change altogether how people think and feel. Pilate doesn’t want this change, regardless of whether it is achieved amicably or not, and he’s more than willing to try to intimidate Jesus and his followers.
The Romans flog Jesus brutally, who is now naked (his rear is shown, but you see his pubic hair when he’s on the cross). He is given his crown of thorns and is bleeding down his spine. It’s a humiliating, degrading scene. He’s given a dirty robe and is made to carry his crosspiece. There is no Simon to bear any part of Jesus’ burden for him, and the fear, exhaustion, and sadness in Dafoe’s eyes are plain to see. The man’s nonverbal acting skills are as excellent as anything he says. Jesus apologizes to his mother for being a “bad son,” and in a reminder of the beginning of the movie, Jesus is tied to his cross, asking the Father to stay with him as the nails go in and all other sound goes out. Oh, Lord.
(Massive SPOILERS from here on out until the conclusion.)
The depiction is graphic, and the music and the atmosphere become completely horrifying at this point as people begin cheering for Jesus’ death, oblivious to the weather slowly becoming out of control around them. As thunder booms overhead, a strange little girl appears at the foot of the cross. She’s Jesus’ guardian angel, and she says that his father has sent her to save Jesus, stating that he has suffered enough and citing the story of Abraham and Isaac. At this point Jesus is bloodied and fatigued, and the angel removes his crown of thorns–it makes me wonder if this would only increase his bleeding–before removing Jesus’ nails and actually bringing him down off the cross.
Confused about his messianic status but grateful, Jesus is led into a beautiful forest, and he and the angel gaze upon a wedding ceremony in progress. It is his, and Mary Magdalene is the bride. She cries in joy upon seeing him, and they embrace. Some time later, they relax privately, she in her bridal gown and he still wearing next to nothing. Mary nurses his wounds, which are still visible, and they begin their marital embrace. Mary wants to have a child, and their intercourse is partly covered in shadow, though Dafoe’s hip movements are clearly depicted. She does conceive but is later killed. This movie really starts getting weird when the angel tells Jesus that “there’s only one woman” in the world and that another person is now carrying Jesus’ child. It only gets weirder. Jesus at this point flat-out proclaims God to have been wrong to take the original Mary’s life.
Though ashamed of his mistakes, he is happy enough with his new-old spouse, and their life goes on as usual. The apostle Paul speaks of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, neither of which have yet been completed; Jesus, who actually meets Paul here, calls him a liar. God’s son throws off his divine status, ancestry, and mission in order to live life on his terms, and for a while, everything seems acceptable if not for Paul’s blatant disapproval.
Later, Jesus is shown to have grown old, reminiscing on when he and Mary planted a set of vines; “this will all pass,” the angel reminds a savior who has decided to amass worldly comforts. It soon does. The Romans return, killing all of the Jews they can find while setting Jerusalem on fire. Red smoke fills the sky as Jesus lies on rugs. A number of Jesus’ disciples manage to find him, having grown old themselves. Judas, who here shows no remorse for his actions, is absolutely contemptuous toward his master, because the Romans have won: the Temple is destroyed, Judas has been fighting in Jerusalem to no avail, and this Jesus is a traitor who left his place on the cross. Jesus appeals to the angel, who carries a plot twist that I imagine the viewer has long guessed; Judas definitely has (Jesus’ inability to do so seems like a plot hole, in light of him doing similar things for the people earlier in the movie, but it makes sense when this part of the film is shown for what it really is).
Jerusalem burns, but Jesus’ sometimes inconsistent development throughout the film finally comes to a head. He replaces his spiritual anxiety with determination enough to ask God to listen to him. He apologizes, placing himself in the position of the prodigal son and asking to be the messiah even if that means crucifixion.
And so it goes.
Instantly, Jesus is back on the cross, and if this whole preceding scene was an “all just a dream” mechanic, then it’s the single best use of that mechanic I’ve ever seen. The Savior, now a savior indeed, bleeds from head to toe, but he is victorious even before his resurrection: He’s conquered all of the devil’s temptations. He has every right to express honest satisfaction in an otherwise horrifying context. Jesus, not Judas or the Romans or the devil, has won, and these give his final words on the cross and in the film all the more meaning:
“It is accomplished!”
(Spoilers end here.)
Conclusion: One of the strangest and most powerful films I’ve ever seen.
The Last Temptation of Christ, in straying so far from Biblical events, takes its fate into its own hands from the word go. Judas and John the Baptist feel more consistent if flat in their moment-to-moment personalities than Jesus does, and they (particularly John) earn the audience’s approval through their force of personality, which is more than enough to make up for their lack of complexity when compared to this version of the Messiah.
While much of the film’s sexual content makes sense because of the story, some of it simply feels random, like the nude women dancing around John the Baptist. (This is not to be confused with the dance of the seven veils.) Other than that, the frustrated feelings Jesus and Mary Magdalene show early on for each other are poignant even if their story doesn’t feel as complete as it could.
Somehow, the concept works. Jesus’ story plays out similarly to what I think of as a classical hero’s journey or even to the Biblical story of Jonah, which is one of my favorites because of its depiction of God as a giver of second chances for individuals as well as for nations. Even for readers who skipped past the story spoilers, it’s safe to say that second chances are very much a part of the tale this movie wants to share, and its unusual story line heavily encourages the viewer to be familiar with Scripture and the Gospels on a deep level. I can definitely understand that not all viewers will want to accept this story’s changes even for the sake of the plot, and I don’t blame them either way.
It’s reasonable to desire that a work that draws at least in part from such well known sources should value accuracy and faithfulness toward those, but most of the risks this story takes really do pay off. Some moments in the film do feel “preachy,” which is obvious in context of the Bible but still somewhat tedious in the context of a secular movie that I’m watching for entertainment. Even still, so much else about the film simply works, ranging from the universally powerful acting to the surprisingly terrifying production values, especially in the final act. Though not for everyone, especially not for younger or spiritually confused viewers, The Last Temptation of Christ is essentially a proof by contradiction of the necessity of Jesus to fulfill his mission on Earth. It’s not the most flattering or edifying portrayal of one of the most influential people to ever grace the world, but I’ve seen much worse. This film is a classic that, while difficult to watch, is very much worth watching, and I heartily expect my Dafoe-adoring friends to devour this anyway. As well they should.
Image credits (property of Universal Pictures and Cineplex Odeon Films)
– Movie poster – source
– Jesus carrying another’s cross – source
– Judas – source
– Snake – source (graphic imagery)
– Jesus and Mary Magdalene – source
– Jesus within the rocks – source
– Smug Jesus – source
– Lazarus – source
– Averted riot – source
– Pontius Pilate – source (image 58)
– Angel – source