Celebrating The Last Temptation of Christ’s
Fifteenth Anniversary

Last Temptation of Christ

by Kathleen Kinsolving

Fifteen years ago this August, a film deeply mired in controversy premiered in the United States and Canada.

Entitled The Last Temptation of Christ, it was directed by one of America’s greatest cinematic visionaries, Martin Scorsese. On August 12, 1988, the day of its premiere, The New York Times carried a full-page advertisement for Last Temptation, which included the following reviews:

"Martin Scorsese, America’s most gifted, most daring moviemaker, may have created his masterpiece"..."Highest rating, an extraordinary accomplishment. The Crucifixion is the strongest such scene of all time, and may be the movie scene of the year"..."The most impressive biblical movie epic ever. Visually breathtaking and intellectually scorching...an extraordinary feat of filmmaking."

Although it was clear to these notable critics (ranging from Time Magazine to USA Today) that Last Temptation should be considered one of Scorsese’s greatest films, a contingency of Christian fundamentalists, led by Rev. Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association, thought otherwise. Reporter Aljean Harmetz’s story, "7,500 Picket Universal Over Movie About Jesus," was found that same day in the Times.

According to Harmetz, Rev. Wildmon wrote to Sidney J. Sheinberg, the president of MCA (Universal’s "parent" company), and "accused the studio of deliberate anti-Christian bias and asked: How many Christians are in the top positions of MCA/Universal? How many Christians sit on the board of directors at MCA?’...On Tuesday, demonstrators led by the Rev. R. L. Hymers of the Fundamentalist Baptist Tabernacle in Los Angeles, formed a tableau outside Universal in which Lew Wasserman, the chairman of MCA, was represented as nailing Jesus to a cross." These fundamentalist extremists even went so far as to attempt to buy the negative of the film, so that they could destroy it.

Fortunately, the controversy over The Last Temptation of Christ has waned over the years. However, when the film was released on DVD in April 2000, this same issue resurfaced in David Ehrenstein’s commentary: "This adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ imaginative retelling of the life of Christ should surely be discussed...by theological scholars and thoughtful moviegoers alike for years to come. Such serious discussion has been blocked by a yowling mob of right-wing zealots who have stood in the way of all discussions of the work since it was first released in 1988."

If Mr. Ehrenstein had taken time to research the Internet, he would’ve found ample evidence to prove otherwise. Dr. William Telford, a theologian who lectured publicly on "Images of Christ in the Cinema," affirmed Scorsese’s film was "one of the finest, most religious and yet most controversial Christ films ever made...From a New Testament, or even from a theological point of view, there is nothing in The Last Temptation of Christ that justifies the depth of opposition that there has been to it. It is sad, therefore, that the film has not had the audience it deserves, being shown only on British television...as late as June, 1995."

Countless rave reviews from moviegoers can also be found, such as in Aaron Caldwell’s "Top 100 Movie Lists" website: "It is very rare that a film comes along and has the power to change the way someone thinks. Martin Scorsese’s epic masterpiece The Last Temptation of Christ does just that...The top three criteria I used when I sat down to assemble my top 100 movie list was that the film 1) had the power to influence the way I view life, 2) was original, and 3) was entertaining. The Last Temptation of Christ met all three criteria and is one of the greatest films of all time."

William Defoe as Christ

Viewers will understand why this film is such a cinematic masterpiece by looking closely at three specific examples from it. In one particular shot, we watch Jesus (played by the superb Willem Dafoe) die on the cross. Suddenly he cries out, "Father, why have you forsaken me?" Scorsese’s choice of turning the camera sideways before Christ’s second words are uttered explicitly conveys the unbearable suffering of the crucifixion. In this visual triumph, the viewer fully understands why Jesus was tempted to reject the will of God.

In addition, Scorsese’s extensive research for Last Temptation included the study of numerous paintings, such as The Ghent Christ Carrying the Cross by Hieronymus Bosch, which he pays tribute to in the film. In one spectacular slow-motion shot (120 frames per second), we see a cross-carrying Jesus being led to his death, surrounded by a mocking crowd. In this scene, Scorsese employed Peter Gabriel’s unforgettable track "Passion" from the soundtrack, where we hear a Qawwali Voiced singer, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, lament Christ’s terrible plight.

And finally, film theorist Andre Caron states, "At the end of The Last Temptation of Christ, at the exact moment when a shouting Jesus dies on the cross shouting "It is accomplished!" we see on the screen the equivalent of a film run-out, as if the film had been exposed to light. The closing credits burn into the resulting prism of incandescent colors while the passionate rhythm of Peter Gabriel’s music drums on the soundtrack."

Perhaps the greatest triumph in filmmaking is evident in The Last Temptation of Christ’s final moments. Jesus smiles, repeats his affirmation softly, and closes his eyes in death. Scorsese makes the ultimate sacrifice by burning his own film into a white light, proving that even his own cinematic accomplishment pales in comparison to the resurrection of Christ. Never has a filmmaker been more courageous, or more unselfish.

As Time Magazine’s Richard Corliss asserted in his review, Martin Scorsese is indeed "America’s most gifted, most daring moviemaker." Although better known for such popular films as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas, Scorsese’s greatest masterpiece, The Last Temptation of Christ, remains forever unsurpassed.

Kathleen Kinsolving, a graduate of the Film and Television program at New York University, included The Last Temptation of Christ in her "Spiritual Themes in Film" lecture for a "Film as Literature" class. She is also a screenwriter, journalist and film theorist.