The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

Most biblical films, and certainly most films about Christ in particular, don’t go so far as Mel Gibson did with “The Passion of the Christ” in attempting to accurately replicate how events are said to have transpired, but they certainly lean towards reproducing the events and stories in the ways the audience is already familiar with. They’re more literal than interpretive, ostensibly more accurate, concerned with dramatising events the audiences already know and appreciate, than providing any sort of new commentary, reframing, or interpretive spin. Even the mere act of engaging with biblical apocrypha often leads to audiences disengaging, as many did with Darron Aronofsky’s “Noah”.

With all that in mind, it’s easy to see why Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” had such a dramatic and controversial reception. It is not an attempt at reproducing the Passion as most know it. It is a novel take on Christ, focusing on humanising him to the point of bringing him down to “our” level, a wretched figure to pity and scorn before Scorsese realigns Christ’s mindset with the martyr role we lionise today.

The first two acts are vastly weaker than the third, as they just flirt with this original take, and frequently lapse into reproducing Christ’s journey as we know it – a futile exercises in plot, ignorant of the actual strengths of the film. The third act is remarkably inspired, brilliant even. Recontextualising the Passion in such a way, enabling such agency for Christ in his decisions, humanising him so far as to have him wade in the immoral muck with the rest of us, so that when he finally does embrace the role we know him for it feels like the earned act of a rounded human, rather than a mythic, godly ordained act of an aspect of God…it’s tremendous.

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Some of Scorsese’s more tangible directorial choices work, some don’t. The use of modern American accents works fine for me, and David Bowie doesn’t feel like a stunt casting at all, but most of the cast don’t seem to be acting in the same film as Willem Dafoe, David Bowie, and Harry Dean Stanton. Those three seem to be the only that really grasped the tone correctly. The score is fantastic but underutilised.

One third of this movie is brilliant, the other two thirds are workmanlike, but what works, works well enough to propel the film into a properly significant position. I give it three and a half snakes, and a New York accent.

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