“The most serious misuse of film craft in the history of moviemaking.”
- Reverend Lloyd Ogilvie on The Last Temptation of Christ
Even before the movie was shot they protested it. When it was announced that Martin Scorsese would be adapting Nikos Kazantzakis’ book The Last Temptation of Christ, the Christian right went absolutely bugfuck nuts, and their continued protests, outcries and terrorist attacks against movie theaters kept the film from being as successful as it might have been. But they were not able to stop it from being made, from being released, and from being a masterpiece.
Kazantzakis’ novel was controversial from its publication in 1953, and it’s been a mainstay on banned books lists since then. The central conceit of the book is, essentially, the central conceit of Christ Himself taken to the logical endpoint: if God sent His only son to live and die as a man, wouldn’t He have struggled with all of the things with which men struggle? Fear, doubt, depression… lust.
It’s that last one that gets the book in hot water. You can’t argue that Christ suffered from fear and reluctance and and sadness unless you’re willing to cut the Garden of Gethsemane out of the Gospels. But lust? This has always been a tricky topic, and the idea of Christ getting a boner was just too much for people.
But how could Christ have been truly a man - truly experience and suffered as a man - if He didn’t feel these universal stirrings? And what better way for Lucifer to tempt Christ in the last moments, as He hung on the cross, than with sex and happiness? In the Gospels the devil tempts Christ in the desert, telling Him that the world can be his to dominate. This is a grand temptation, a huge bit of monomania. In The Last Temptation of Christ Lucifer offers Him something more tangible - the love of Mary Magdalene, the touch of her flesh, a marriage, children of his own, an old age living with a family. As Christ hangs from the cross, bleeding to death in the hot sun, He is shown another possibility, a future free of pain and filled with love and happiness and normalcy. All He must do is get down off the cross, something He can easily accomplish.
I understand that temptation. I don’t understand the scourging of Christ, as shown in The Passion of the Christ. I don’t understand what it’s like to be tortured and beaten and to die on a cross. I can never really get that. I can understand what it’s like to weigh my ideals against simple happiness. I can understand what it’s like to make a decision that I think will make me unhappy for a long time because it’s the right thing to do. The sacrifice of the flesh? That’s alien to me. The sacrifice of happiness? I understand that. That brings me closer to knowing Christ.
I’ve met Martin Scorsese, and the one personal thing I said to him was simply this: “If church made me feel how The Last Temptation of Christ made me feel, I’d be in church every Sunday.” His film is a rapturous work of devotion, a movie that makes the divine human - which is the entire point of Christ’s sojourn on Earth. Willem Dafoe is a fine, troubled Christ and Harvey Keitel is spectacular as Judas, a man torn between what he thinks is right and his loyalty to his best friend. Barbara Hershey is sensuous and strong as Mary, Jesus’ childhood friend, current prostitute and the love of his life. And David Bowie reins as Pontius Pilate, another human caught up in a cosmic web.
Scorsese made a brilliant choice in his film - all of the Apostles talk like Brooklynites. They have the modern blue collar cadence, a way of letting us, the modern viewer, understand what kind of men these were. They were fishers and builders, not thinkers and leaders, and by using the modern tones of the working class we are immediately immersed in their world. It’s jarring, sure, because we’ve been so trained to believe that everybody in Ye Olden Times talked with aristocratic English accents. This is all part of Scorsese’s mission - to make the two thousand year old story from another land absolutely, completely relatable. He wants to remove the distance we have from Christ and to let us understand the true reality of the man and His sacrifice.
The film also portrays Christ Himself as more relatable than ever before. He believes Himself to be a sinner, and He’s unsure if He’s crazy or not. A carpenter, He builds crosses for the Romans before He takes up His own ministry. He’s not a divine warrior who is sure of His path from day one - He is a man who doubts everything up until the very moment that He defies the devil at the moment of death.
I love the movie, and I think the scene that truly offends the sensibilities of these so-called Christians - where Christ and Mary make love in a vision given by the devil - is beautiful and touching and reflects love, not base carnality. This isn’t a Christ who wants to get his fuck on, this is a man who loves a woman completely, and who is tempted with the fulfilment of that love.
But these Christians aren’t very Christlike. And they don’t understand their own faith, that Christ was both God and man. They are, essentially, blasphemers who remove the true humanity from Christ, ignoring the message of the Gospels and the entire point of Christ dying on the cross. And this sex scene set them off.
There were major protests in advance of the film, and they really ramped up when shooting was complete and as Universal began preparing to release the movie. A huge protest march happened at Universal’s headquarters in Studio City, complete with a guy dressed as Universal honcho Lew Wasserman driving nails into the hands of a guy dressed like Christ (a lovely appeal to the Blood Libel). The Campus Crusade for Christ offered to buy the film from Universal before release and completely destroy it. The protesters were interested only in banning the film forever. Media leech Larry Poland, a prominent speaker at the Studio City protest, called on Universal to “abandon its plans to release the movie” and that it should “be destroyed to prevent its future release and sale.”
Universal stood strong and The Last Temptation of Christ was released on August 12, 1988. The loud voices against the film frightened many exhibitors, and the General Cinemas chain, then the fourth-largest in the country, refused to show it at all. When the film played the Venice Film Festival Franco Zeffirelli withdrew his film, The Young Toscanini, from the fest in protest. In the United States protesters lined up outside theaters showing the film, and in Los Angeles vandals splattered paint all over one theater playing the film. Threats were becoming so intense - including bomb threats against theaters - that Universal started paying for security at theaters showing the film.
And then it got violent. In Ithaca New York a man, wrapped in a blanket to protect himself from flying glass, drove a school bus into the lobby of a theater showing the movie. In Paris Christians actually bombed the Saint Michel Theater, severely burning four people and forcing the theater to close for three years. Another French theater was attacked with tear gas.
All of this was done by Christians. All to protest a movie that depicted their peaceful leader in a way they didn’t like.
The movie was banned in many countries, including Mexico, Ireland, Israel and Turkey. It’s still banned today in the Philippines and Singapore. When the film hit home video Blockbuster refused to carry it.
But you can’t keep a masterpiece down. The Last Temptation of Christ made its way to the Criterion Collection, and now, more than 25 years after its release, the film is seen by many as one of the pinnacles of Scorsese’s career. While the protesters lobbed anti-Semitic claims against the film, it was actually a cross-Christian production, directed by a Roman Catholic from a script by a Calvinist (Paul Schrader) that was adapted from a book by a Greek Orthodox Christian (who ended up getting excommunicated for his book, by the way).
I’m an atheist and The Last Temptation of Christ is the movie that most makes me feel the presence of God. Bravery isn’t the absence of fear, it’s getting past fear, and The Last Temptation of Christ shows Christ as brave, shows Him as tough and shows Him as able to defeat the worst the devil throws at Him. How can that be blasphemous? How can a movie that makes even a jaded cynic like me feel hope and love and even a little faith be an insult to your religion?
To learn more about the controversy surrounding the release of The Last Temptation of Christ and the crazy Christian uprising against the media in the 80s, I cannot recommend Hollywood Under Siege: Martin Scorsese, The Religious Right And Culture Wars enough.