Time: 163 Minutes
Willem Dafoe as Jesus
Harvey Keitel as Judas Iscariot
Barbara Hershey as Mary Magdalene
Harry Dean Stanton as Saul/Paul of Tarsus
David Bowie as Pontius Pilate
Director: Martin Scorsese
Jesus (Willem Dafoe), a humble Judean carpenter beginning to see that he is the son of God, is drawn into revolutionary action against the Roman occupiers by Judas (Harvey Keitel) — despite his protestations that love, not violence, is the path to salvation. The burden of being the savior of mankind torments Jesus throughout his life, leading him to doubt. As he is put to death on the cross, Jesus is tempted by visions of an ordinary life married to Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey).
I heard about The Last Temptation of Christ for some time, mainly that Martin Scorsese directed it and that it was really controversial when it was released. I really had no clue what to expect going in. I like Willem Dafoe and Harvey Keitel, and of course I’m a fan of Martin Scorsese. However with the story that has already been done many times before, I didn’t really know what Scorsese would really do with it. I really didn’t expect to love it as much as I did, but it really was fantastic.
The Last Temptation of Christ was actually based on a novel of the same name, which in itself was already pretty controversial. There have been plenty of movies about Jesus, so I wondered what would make this one stand out. The film actually begins with a preface that it’s not based on the gospels and not necessarily biblically based, so you should probably know that going in. The thing that immediately got my interest was the more human take on Jesus, he’s even started out not really sure if he’s truly the son of god, and he’s very much a flawed person, like most people are. I can tell that for some people that would be a deal breaker but if anything for me, that’s what got me on board with the movie from the beginning. This whole movie is a character study following him, and I was invested throughout. Then there’s the last 30 minutes to an hour of the movie which was probably the most controversial part to a lot of religious people at the time. For those who don’t know about that section, I won’t reveal it, but it’s not like The Passion of the Christ where it’s from a bunch of endlessly violent scenes (even though this movie does have some violent scenes). It also never feels like it’s being controversial for the sake of controversy. It’s mainly the exploration of Jesus as a human being, and I found that compelling. This is quite a long movie at 2 hours and 40 minutes, so you have to prepare yourself for that. Thankfully I was wrapped up with what was happening, but if you aren’t invested early on, it might be a bit of a chore to get through.
Willem Dafoe as Jesus Christ does seem like an odd casting for many reasons, but I have to say that his performance here as the conflicted Jesus is amongst his best work. He’s the main lead of the movie, and the movie relied heavily on him working, and thankfully he brought this performance to life and really anchors the whole movie. The most prominent supporting actor is Harvey Keitel who plays Judas, and it’s a different portrayal of him than most are used to. Yes, Keitel is playing the only Brooklyn Judas (and he keeps his accent) and with that he seems a little out of place at times, but he acts his part really well. The rest of the cast do well, including Barbara Hershey as Mary Magdalene, Harry Dean Stanton as Saul/Paul of Tarsus, and David Bowie in a surprise one scene appearance as Pontius Pilate. Now there comes the obvious when it comes to the casting, the Romans sound like Brits and the Hebrews like New Yorkers. While that’s definitely distracting at first, it’s definitely an intentional choice that paid off in the end.
Martin Scorsese directed this excellently as he usually does. For a budget of 7 million dollars, this movie really looks outstanding and still holds up over 3 decades later. The cinematography is stunning, and the production design and costume design is fantastic. Overall on a technical level, it’s really great.
The Last Temptation of Christ is outstanding and one of Martin Scorsese’s finest films. Scorsese’s direction was excellent, the acting was great (particularly Willem Dafoe), and Scorsese’s take on the story is thought provoking and effectively emotional. Even if you’re not interested in religion or the topics, I think there’s a lot that you can appreciate about it, even if it’s just on a technical and acting level. However there’s a compelling story at the heart of it that I’m sure most people can connect with.