Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ is a movie that never received a fair shake. Its release in 1988 came amidst vehement (and in the case of Paris, France, violent) protest from Christian fundamentalist groups, with many theaters choosing not to screen the movie to avoid controversy.
It's too bad, because if they had given it a chance they would have seen a challenging but canonical interpretation of Jesus's life. I was so intrigued when viewing it a first time as an 18-year-old Jewish kid with no knowledge of Jesus that I spent the better part of the following year reading books about him. Temptation carries with it baggage that has limited if not prevented criticism of it for what it is, as opposed to looking at it through the prism of faith.
Temptation is based on the novel of the same name by Nikos Kazanzakis. In the movie, Jesus, played by an extraordinarily focused Willem Dafoe, is at first uncertain if not fearful of his role. He goes so far as to build crosses for Romans to crucify fellow Jews. With the help of his best friend and favorite disciple Judas Iscariot (Harvey Keitel), Jesus comes to accept his place as sacrificial lamb for humanity. As much as this is Jesus's story, it's also Judas's, and the entire film is anchored by Keitel's incredible performance.
Judas is a patriot, waiting for a Messiah to deliver the Jews from the hand of the Romans, by sword. The twist here is that Judas loves Jesus, and Jesus has to convince him to turn him into the Romans because that's Judas's role. Without Judas delivering Jesus, there's no sacrifice. Jesus explains to Judas that Judas carries a heavier load than Jesus's.
The source of the controversy comes from what happens after Jesus is placed on the cross. Jesus is visited by what he believes to be an angelic young girl, who tells him that the sacrifice is unnecessary, that God is sparing his life as he spared the life of Isaac, Abraham's son. Jesus believes the girl and comes down off the cross.
We then see Jesus leading a normal life. Among other things, he has sex with Mary Magdalene (the part of the screenplay that led to the protests).
Jesus eventually sees Paul publicly speaking about Paul's being blinded by Jesus on the road to Damascus (when he was Saul, he then changed his name). Jesus argues with him, claiming to be the person allegedly crucified. Paul says he doesn't care whether Jesus died on the cross, that it's unimportant whether the Christ story is true, what's significant is what it represents to people.
Jesus grows old and is visited by his former disciples, including an angry Judas (who feels betrayed by Jesus's non-sacrifice). Jesus explains that an angel told him the sacrifice was unnecessary, and Judas responds that the girl is no angel, but Satan. Jesus begs God to place him back on the cross, who grants his wish, and Jesus overcomes his final temptation.
Scorsese, who attended Catholic school growing up, insists his film is not blasphemous. The whole idea of Jesus is that he was at once all God and all human being, and subject to the temptations of this world. Jesus doesn't really sleep with Mary Magdalene, rather he's tempted by it; in the end, he resists the temptation to lead a normal life, and winds up back on the cross.
(It's possible to view Jesus as a raving lunatic who hallucinates the entire final temptation, though he'd have to have some powers of prophecy to hallucinate an accurate portrayal of Paul.)
Last Temptation is a flawed masterpiece. At 163 minutes, it's too long and drags during the second half, particularly when Jesus has his 40-day battle against Satan in the desert (which contains some almost laughably cheesy special effects).
Temptation is too long but still a great film. The atmosphere is like that in no prior Biblical epic, with Scorsese making you believe you're in Palestine in Jesus's time 2,000 years ago. This feeling is accentuated by Peter Gabriel's soundtrack, which enhances the mood of the film (I can't imagine the movie minus the soundtrack). As I mentioned earlier, Harvey Keitel steals the show as the red-headed Judas (there are a lot of deep reds in the movie, usually associated with turmoil), and Willem Dafoe is an intense, conflicted Jesus. Last Temptation doesn't rank with Scorsese's best, but it is at least as thought provoking as anything he's directed.