“I am the saint of blasphemy” | The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

Note: a German translation of this essay is available at Un Cahier Du Cinema. Thank you to Stefan C. Limbrunner for producing the translation.

In 1988 the Martin Scorsese Biblical drama The Last Temptation of Christ was released by Universal Pictures under a storm of protest. There were calls for the film to be banned, and that any cinema in America that dared screen the film be boycotted.

Controversy around religious features was, of course, nothing new. In 1979 numerous British town councils banned Monty Python’s The Life of Brian from being exhibited in local theatres. Nor did religious controversy end with Scorsese. In 2004 Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ would be accused of anti-Semitism due to key phrases of unsubtitled Aramaic. A decade after that, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah would be criticised for its abstract handling of the Book of Genesis. The ferocity of the opposition to The Last Temptation of Christ, however, was unmatched. Even Ron Howard’s The Da Vinci Code, which posited that Jesus did not die on the cross and had a child with his follower Mary Magdalene, failed to elicit such a firestorm of protest.

The protests were, of course, something of a nonsense. Those objecting to the film’s release had not even seen it, nor did they generally express a desire to. Furthermore the film itself is a remarkably devout work of religious expression. That religious element, understandably part of the film’s basic fabric, also tends to mask what is to me more interesting: it is a superb narrative feature. It is inventive, thoughtful, beautifully produced on an extremely tight budget, and superbly performed by some of the USA’s finest actors. Its visual imagery is striking, and its iconic Peter Gabriel score is nothing short of astounding.

I am not a particularly religious person, but The Last Temptation of Christ remains by a considerable distance my favourite of Martin Scorsese’s films. It is a powerful, infectiously spiritual drama, and possibly the best film of its kind ever made.

‘I’ve always wanted to make a film about Jesus,’ said Scorsese. ‘I don’t know any more what came first, the movies or religion. My earliest childhood memories are of films and the cocoon of the Catholic Church. I have the feeling that in certain respects they were inseparable.’[1]

Raised a strict Roman Catholic in Little Italy, New York, the young Martin Scorsese had suffered terribly from asthma. Unable to play outside with the other children in his neighbourhood, he discovered instead a passion for going to the movies. As a teenager, having moved with his family to Brooklyn, Scorsese would rent 16mm film reels to watch over and over in his own home. After considering going into the priesthood following his high school graduation he instead enrolled in an English degree at Washington Square College and set out to become a filmmaker.

Scorsese was heavily inspired by Italian neorealism and the French New Wave. Neorealism in particular would come to dictate the form of many of his early works, as well as The Last Temptation of Christ.

After writing and directing several short films in college, Scorsese made his first full-length feature in 1967: the black and white drama Who’s That Knocking at my Door. Scorsese began shooting the film in 1965 while still at college. A fellow student, an aspiring actor named Harvey Keitel, played the lead role. Another student, Thelma Schoonmaker, worked as the film’s editor. The working relationship formed during the film’s lengthy and intermittent production was a strong one: Keitel subsequently appeared in five of Scorsese’s films, while Schoonmaker has edited every feature film Scorsese has directed.

In the early 1970s Scorsese befriended a group of like-minded independent filmmakers, who would collectively reshape American cinema over the course of the decade. The group, which included George Lucas, Brian De Palma and Steven Spielberg, would share ideas and support one another’s projects. It was through De Palma that Scorsese met up-and-coming actor Robert De Niro, whose performances in Taxi Driver, Mean Streets and Raging Bull would come to make the actor and director almost synonymous through the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In 1972 Scorsese was hired by low-budget film producer Roger Corman to direct his second feature, Boxcar Bertha. While produced on a shoestring budget the finished film managed to gain considerable critical acclaim. It allowed Scorsese the opportunity to secure funding for future movie productions. During the production of Boxcar Bertha, its star Barbara Hershey gave Scorsese a gift: a novel titled The Last Temptation, by Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis.

Kazantzakis was born in 1883 in Crete – then part of the Ottoman Empire. As a young man he studied law in Athens and philosophy in Paris. His first literary work was a 1906 short story “Serpent and Lilly”, but he soon expanded to write not only stories but novels and plays. He grew up not only a committed member of the Greek Orthodox Church but also of the political left, including a brief stint as a government minister in the Greek parliament.

Among a lengthy career of literary works, Kazantzakis would become best known for two novels: Zorba the Greek, published in 1946, and The Last Temptation, which followed nine years later.

The Last Temptation retold the Gospels of Jesus Christ from Christ’s own perspective, re-imagining the traditional expression of Jesus-as-God as Jesus-as-Man. It portrayed a very human Jesus of Nazareth, one who was sorely tempted to abandon his faith and who was wracked with guilt and self-doubt. By overcoming his doubts and temptations, Kazantzakis’ Jesus demonstrates the capacity for great good and strong faith in everyone: it humanises Christ, and arguably makes him a more relatable and inspiring figure.

While the novel received considerable literary acclaim, it was met with outright hostility by both the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches. The former added the novel to its notorious Index Librorum Prohibitorum – a definitive list of works banned by the Church. The latter unsuccessfully attempted to have the novel banned in Greece and Kazantzakis arrested for blasphemy, while elements within the Church petitioned strenuously to have him excommunicated. In a telegram to the Church leaders, Kazantzakis wrote: ‘You placed a curse on me, Holy Fathers, and I give you my blessing: may your conscience be as clear as mine and be as moral and devout as I am.’[2] When he died of leukaemia in 1957, the Church refused a request to have his body buried in one of their cemeteries. He was instead buried inside the wall surrounding the city of Heraklion.

While Martin Scorsese was entranced with The Last Temptation, it took him several years to actually read the novel from beginning to end. Never a strong reader, Scorsese also found himself savouring the book at a slow pace and only read chapters occasionally. He finally finished the novel while visiting the set of Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s film The Meadow. He immediately instructed his agent, Harry Ufland, to contact Kazantzakis’ literary estate and request the film rights to the novel.

It took several months for Ufland to actually track down Kazantzakis’ widow Helen, who had a tendency to travel internationally for extended periods. Once she was located a protracted series of negotiations ensued. They ultimately resulted in a multi-year dear for the adaptation rights, finally signed in November 1977.

During the negotiation period Scorsese successfully attracted film producers Robert Chartoff and Irvin Winkler to join the project. The pair had recently scored a career high by producing the 1976 boxing drama Rocky, which against all expectations had become an Oscar-winning smash hit.

For as long as he had seriously considered directing The Last Temptation, Martin Scorsese had always expected to hire his friend Paul Schrader to adapt the novel into a screenplay. Most recently Schrader had written the screenplay to Scorsese’s urban drama Taxi Driver. ‘When I first met Marty in 1972,’ recalled Schrader, ‘he told me there were two books he wanted to make, Gangs of New York and The Last Temptation of Christ. It struck me that these were rather grandiose ambitions for someone whose most important credit was a Roger Corman film.’[3]

Schrader was raised a Dutch Calvinist, and was not allowed to see movies as a child. It was only as he grew older that he was lured to the silver screen. He made his screenwriting debut on Sydney Pollack’s 1974 thriller The Yakuza.

While Scorsese was keen to direct The Last Temptation – whose title was extended during development to The Last Temptation of Christ – he already had other projects well in train that required directing first. He had recently completed New York New York, which did not receive as strong a critical response as Taxi Driver. He then moved on to the boxing drama Raging Bull as a favour to actor Robert De Niro, who had shepherded the project through its initial development. Paul Schrader wrote that screenplay as well, after which he wrote a screenplay of his own: Cat People, loosely adapting the Val Lewton cult horror film. Between writing the screenplay and directing Cat People, Schrader found the time to adapt The Last Temptation. His second and final draft was completed in March 1982.

With Schrader’s work complete Scorsese passed a copy to De Niro. At the time De Niro was working on Sergio Leone’s epic-length drama Once Upon a Time in America. While he had no personal interest in appearing in the film – he felt he was a particularly poor fit for the role of Jesus – De Niro reluctantly agreed to sign on should his participation be the difference between production and cancellation.

In mid-1982 Irvin Winkler received a telephone call from Jeffrey Katzenberg, the recently appointed president of worldwide production at Paramount Pictures. Katzenberg was systematically getting in touch with each of Hollywood’s key film producers, in order to introduce himself and informally chat over potential projects that those producers might consider making at the studio.

At the time Winkler was deep in production on the Tom Wolfe adaptation The Right Stuff at rival studio Warner Bros, and did not have any other projects in development that he felt would be a suitable fit for Paramount. At the end of a lunch meeting, and upon Katzenberg’s urging for him to pitch anything he was producing and not just Paramount-friendly fare, Winkler mentioned Scorsese’s The Last Temptation. To Winkler’s surprise Katzenberg not only asked to see a copy of the screenplay but called back a few days later to formally discuss Paramount funding and distributing the film.

From the outset The Last Temptation was an unusual fit for Paramount. The previous year the studio’s most successful hits had been Taylor Hackford’s romantic drama An Officer and a Gentleman, the science fiction sequel Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Walter Hill’s action comedy 48 Hours. A provocative Biblical drama seemed a poor fit when lined up alongside such commercial fare.

When meeting with the heads of the studio, Winkler and Scorsese were surprised to find that both Katzenberg and studio president Michael Eisner not only backed the project on a creative level; they honestly felt it had mainstream commercial appeal. At the time the studio had been attempting to develop a range of award-friendly ‘prestige’ pictures aimed at an up-market audience, with films in development based on Ethan Frome and Moby Dick. An inventive take on the Gospels by an acclaimed director seemed to be a strong contender for that purpose.

After a brief courtship the key players met for lunch to discuss a deal. Studio chair Barry Diller asked Scorsese why he was intent on directing The Last Temptation. ‘Because I want to get to know Christ better,’ was the director’s honest reply.[4] At the end of the lunch Diller made a personal promise to bankroll and distribute the film.

In January 1983 Scorsese travelled to Israel to undertake an initial location scout, alongside Winkler and Chartoff. Arnon Milchan, an Israeli producer who had produced Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, arranged for an enormous level of local government support including the use of a helicopter to transport the group quickly from one location to another.

The scouting mission received an unanticipated level of attention in the Hollywood press, including both Variety and Hollywood Reporter. Both publications cited rumours that Robert De Niro was lined up to play Jesus. Either due to wishful thinking or a communication error, Paramount actually announced De Niro’s participation at the 1983 ShoWest exhibitors convention. Jeffrey Katzenberg personally telephoned Scorsese and De Niro to apologise for the mistake, but the idea piqued Irvin Winkler’s interest enough for him to press Scorsese to discuss the role with De Niro one final time.

Scorsese did. De Niro passed.

In May 1983 Scorsese settled down to work on revisions to the Last Temptation screenplay. While he was pleased with Schrader’s second draft he felt there was more work to be done. ‘When he condensed the novel,’ he said, ‘Paul went straight to the core of the major scenes. He wielded his scalpel with accuracy and zest. But certain points were not resolved. We didn’t solve the problem of the language, or some of the structural questions.’[5]

Scorsese met with another screenwriter, Jay Cocks, and together they put aside two weekend sessions in a house outside of Los Angeles to go through the screenplay and make changes. They pared down much of the film’s historical context in order to focus on the relationship between Jesus and his disciple Judas. They also removed several of Schrader’s more contentious scenes, including a flashback to a young Jesus abandoning Mary Magdalene at the wedding altar and a version of the Last Supper where the disciples – upon hearing Jesus tell them the bread they are eating is his flesh – actually cough up bloody meat. At the same time Scorsese and Cocks inserted numerous scenes from the novel that Schrader had cut out.

By the end of the rewriting period, they had extended Schrader’s tight 90-page screenplay into one running for 111 pages. Scorsese’s choice to rewrite the screenplay with Cocks caused friction between him and Schrader. It ultimately led to a Writer’s Guild of America arbitration over who, between Schrader, Scorsese and Cocks, should receive an on-screen credit. In the end the WGA sided with Schrader, giving him the sole screenwriting credit for the film. ‘Oh, yes, we are feuding,’ Schrader admitted at the time, ‘but we’re also talking about doing another movie. We’ve been feuding since we met. We’re both rather bull-headed people.’[6] Scorsese and Schrader did indeed collaborate once again, on the 1999 drama Bringing Out the Dead.

Production designer Boris Levin was making reconnaissance trips to Israel and Morocco, searching for suitable locations to simulate first-century Jerusalem. At the same time Scorsese started auditioning actors for the key roles. Harvey Keitel was the first actor cast, in his case as the disciple Judas. Barbara Hershey personally begged Scorsese for the role of Mary Magdalene; despite their friendship he put her through a rigorous series of auditions to ensure there would be no accusations of his playing favourites.

For the central role of Jesus, Scorsese was keen to cast an actor that would broadly match the Catholic idealised image: European, white-skinned, blonde-to-brown hair and a beard. He was well aware the actual Jesus was likely of Semitic or Middle Eastern appearance, but given the provocative liberties the film would be taking with the life of Jesus he did not want to further risk controversy by casting a non-conventional actor in the role.

Actors auditioned for the role included Jonathan Pryce, John Malkovich, Eric Roberts and Christopher Walken. Scorsese initially favoured Roberts for the part, but when Roberts abruptly pulled himself from contention he settled upon Walken instead. That choice, however, was rejected by Paramount executives. Walken was seen as too unusual a choice, and it was made clear that the project would not go ahead if Walken was Scorsese’s choice. After the fact Walken’s agent claimed the entire rejection of her client was a challenge to Scorsese to quit the production in protest, and thus ease Paramount of an increasingly controversial project.

A growing protest movement against The Last Temptation was kick-started in March 1983 by a media watch group newsletter titled N.F.D. Informer. The group was chaired by the Reverend Donald Wildmon, who had been disgusted by what he saw as a lack of strong moral values on American television and had formed the National Federation of Decency (N.F.D.) in response. The March issue of the newsletter noted Paramount’s greenlighting of the film, and provided a list of companies owned by Paramount’s parent company Gulf and Western; a none-too-subtle threat to that company of a potential boycott movement. Around the same time the Arizona-based Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary also noted the production announcement and quickly condemned it.

When letters of complaint started trickling into the Paramount Pictures main office, an attempt was made to send personalised responses reassuring each complainant that the filmmakers were taking the upmost care to be respectful of Christ and of the Christian faith. Some letters were even forwarded to Scorsese for him to respond to personally. By September, however, there were simply too many letters being sent into Paramount for the studio to reply with anything more than a generalised response.

Matters were made worse when a satirical article was published in the left-wing magazine Mother Jones that purported to show off excerpts from The Last Temptation’s screenplay. Those fake excerpts, aimed at duplicating the gritty urban tone of Scorsese’s earlier works, were accidentally taken seriously by the editors of the N.F.D. Informer and distributed to N.F.D. members as actual examples of what the film was going to be like.

The growing protests grabbed the attention of Salah Hassanein, executive vice-president of the United Artists chain of movie theatres. Imagining potential riots and violence committed in his cinemas, he wrote to Paramount to inform the studio that The Last Temptation would not appear on any of the company’s 3,200 screens. This represented a serious blow to Paramount and the film, since it would significantly reduce its commercial prospects.

Aware of Paramount’s discomfort, but still relatively assured that the film would proceed, Scorsese successfully cast his Jesus: the 24 year-old actor Aidan Quinn. Scorsese had seen a pre-release screening of Quinn’s upcoming film Reckless, and felt he had the right combination of strength and vulnerability to convincingly play Kazantzakis’ vision of Jesus Christ.

At the same the estimated production budget of the film was rising, from its initial $12 million to as high as $16 million. The shoot was scheduled to take place in Jerusalem – more accessible by aeroplane to Los Angeles than other potential locations – and sets were already under construction. The film was almost entirely cast. Quinn, Hershey and Keitel were all contracted. Harry Dean Stanton was cast as the apostle Paul, and pop musician turned actor Sting would be Roman governor Pontius Pilate. Jason Miller (The Exorcist) was in discussions to play John the Baptist.

Due to the spiralling costs and the growing protests, executives at Paramount got cold feet and spontaneously rejected the project. They informed Scorsese of their decision on Thanksgiving Day 1983. Rather than simply accept the rejection, Scorsese promised to rework the production and get it produced on a much smaller budget; as low as $7 million if it would keep the film alive. Paramount agreed to consider the offer, and pre-production continued apace: sets and costumes were completed, schedules locked down, and production set to commence at the beginning of January 1984.

On 23 December Michael Eisner personally informed Scorsese and his producers that The Last Temptation of Christ would not be made at Paramount Pictures. The project formally went into ‘turnaround’: Paramount continued to own the production, including its script, sets and costumes, but would relinquish all rights should another studio step in and pay for all production costs to date. The cancellation was so sudden that it was too late to inform Aidan Quinn before he left for the shoot. He was told of the collapse of the project in the arrivals hall of Tel Aviv airport.

Scorsese and his producers – Chartoff and Winkler had moved on during pre-production, and were replaced by producer/director Jon Avnet – valiantly struggled to find another studio to pick up the film, but to no avail. The Last Temptation was, in its Paramount form at least, dead and buried.

Scorsese’s career moved on. He made the 1985 black comedy After Hours before reuniting with Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg at the Walt Disney Studios to direct The Color of Money, demonstrating that for Scorsese there were no hard feelings. Despite these two productions, he never lost sight of his core ambition: to bring The Last Temptation to the screen. In a 1987 interview, Barbara Hershey said: ‘Marty says he feels he was put on earth to direct that film. I just know with that kind of passion, he’s not going to stop till he makes it.’[7]

One person who did assume Scorsese had moved on was Paul Schrader, who wrote to the director to request he be allowed to activate a clause in his contract that allowed him to direct the picture if Scorsese turned it down. ‘I made some moves to get it,’ said Schrader. ‘I notified Marty. I said, “I hear that your enthusiasm is waning, and there are some people in Egypt and France that might have some money. If you ever slacken I will walk over your back to get this movie done.” And he wrote me back this long furious letter and said, “You will have to pull the script from my dying hands.”’[8]

Harry Ufland continued to champion The Last Temptation wherever possible. When it became clear that American studios would not support it, he started looking for funding in Europe. Roger Corman’s old company New World Pictures, since sold to a new buyer, attempted to pick up the film in a bit for greater respectability, but baulked at Paramount’s turnaround costs. The French, Russian and Greek governments all gave the film serious consideration before turning it down. In the case of France, the refusal stemmed from a strong protest by the Catholic Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger.

A positive break came after Scorsese signed onto the Creative Artists Agency (CAA), a new agency for actors, writer and directors spearheaded by powerful industry figure Michael Ovitz. It was Ovitz who first developed the idea of ‘package’ pictures: find a screenplay, attach a director and stars, and then ship the project part-and-parcel around Hollywood. It was Ovitz who packaged together Scorsese, Paul Newman and Tom Cruise on The Color of Money, and after that fim’s release he asked Scorsese what his dream project was. That had never changed: The Last Temptation of Christ. Ovitz immediately approached Tom Pollock, the newly-appointed chair of the MCA Motion Pictures Group – the owners of film studio Universal Pictures. Ovitz came with a pretty simple deal: pay for The Last Temptation, and have Martin Scorsese as one of the studio’s resident filmmakers.

Pollock was already familiar with the project, having previously worked as a lawyer representing Harry Ufland. By good fortune the film also fit well into his strategy for film production: combining big-budget populist films with smaller, more modest productions that would increase the studio’s prestige and hopefully win it some awards. Pollock met with Scorsese alongside studio president Sid Sheinberg to discuss a potential future between the director and the studio. A few future production were discussed, including Gangs of New York and a Mafia drama Scorsese was developing titled Wise Guys (later retitled Goodfellas), but no firm commitments were made.

In the end Pollock agreed to finance and distribute The Last Temptation as a negative pickup; a situation where the studio only pays for the film once complete, requiring the producers to seek temporary funding from elsewhere. The arrangement reduced Universal’s risks, since if further protests killed the project they would not be out of pocket, and it benefitted Ufland and Scorsese since they could now take the studio’s backing to potential new investors. Scorsese said: ‘I never thought I could make a movie like this for a place like Universal. They represented a certain kind of filmmaking. But from the moment I met Tom Pollock and Sid Sheinberg, I felt a new attitude, a new openness. I’ve never felt such support from any studio.’[9]

In a somewhat surprising move it was a cinema chain that came to the film’s aid. The Cineplex Odeon company agreed the fund 50 per cent of the production budget in return for Canadian distribution rights and the rights to screen the film on favourable terms in all Cineplex theatres in the USA. The remainder was sourced privately. Scorsese once again had funding and a supportive studio, and while the production would have to remain in its low-budget form it would nonetheless finally be made.

Aidan Quinn, who had recently finished an arduous location shoot on a Robinson Crusoe adaptation, had no desire to set off on another overseas production straight away. Exhausted from the Crusoe experience, he turned down Scorsese’s renewed offer to play Jesus.

Scorsese quickly moved in on recasting the role with Willem Dafoe. He had seen Dafoe play the villain in William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. and had been enormously impressed. After taking the time to watch him in Oliver Stone’s Vietnam War film Platoon Scorsese was sufficiently confident to offer him the role of Jesus. Aside from Dafoe’s talent, Scorsese was attracted to his visual appearance: with his blonde hair and European features he could easily pass for the traditional representation of Christ seen in Christian churches around much of the world.

Dafoe, who was performing with his Wooster Group theatre company at the time of his casting, tackled playing Christ the only way he saw how – through his humanity. ‘As an actor facing the part straight on,’ he explained, ‘I could only deal with it in human terms. I think the movie brings out the heart and the spirit of Jesus. It was a difficult movie in every respect.’[10]

The pressure of playing the subject of a major world religion did not appear to faze Dafoe. ‘“Christ! Oh my God, he’s such an important figure!” – That never occurred to me. I wasn’t doing Christ for all time, I wasn’t doing the definitive Christ, I was doing Martin Scorsese’s film based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel. And that frees you. To make the gesture, you’re not thinking about what the gesture means. You’re going on instincts and intuition and so you’re flirting with ghosts.’[11]

‘In Last Temptation,’ Dafoe later emphasised, ‘I’m playing a Jesus, not the Jesus. If I’m thinking I’m playing the Jesus, I don’t know where to begin.’[12]

Despite strong interest from Jeff Bridges – who went so far as to personally write to Scorsese begging for the part – Harvey Keitel was still Scorsese’s only choice.

‘It had a profound effect on me,’ said Keitel. ‘To read first the script and then Kazantzakis’s novel, it sort of came at a time when I was questioning my own approach to knowing who I am, what I am, to knowing about my spiritual side. It sort of opened a door for me to question in a more profound way the Biblical account of our history. He brought imagination to the story of the Creation.’[13]

One element that appealed to Keitel in particular was the film’s colloquial language, which was to be performed in the actors’ natural American accents rather than affected English accents generally used in period films. ‘The language was chosen,’ said Keitel. ‘By that I mean, the form the language would take, contemporary speech, was chosen by Marty. The original language was Aramaic. You know, somewhat the sound of that if you know or have heard any Arabic at all. Marty’s decision was to use these accents. It was a creative choice. Anyone who differs with that choice is welcome to differ with it, but they must not encumber us, or the movie, with their own interpretation. They can disagree with us, but they must not impose what they would like to hear onto us. Some people never got past the language. I was upset with what some people said regarding the language.’[14]

For Scorsese, the use of contemporary American accents was necessary to bring the characters to the audience; to make them come across as actual people, and not abstracted figures experienced only through Scripture. ‘The only way you can do that,’ said Scorsese, ‘is to not make your films look and sound like the old Biblical films. In those films the characters were speaking with British accents. The dialogue was beautiful, in some cases, and the films look beautiful. They were pageants. But they had nothing really to do with our lives, where you “make up for your sins at home and in the streets, and not in church”.’[15]

‘Jesus lived in the world. He wasn’t in a temple. He wasn’t in church. He was in the world. He was on the street. The picture I wanted to make was about Jesus on Eighth Avenue, something like Pasolini’s Accattone.’[16]

The contemporary language of the Apostles led to some striking casting to fill the roles: working class New York performers that looked like heavy labourers, and fishermen. Together the Apostles give the entire film an unexpectedly earthy, matter-of-fact style. They take mythology and do transform it into something that feels real.

Actors cast as the Apostles included regular Scorsese actor Victor Argo (Taxi Driver, Mean Streets) as Peter, Alan Rosenberg (The Wanderers) as Thomas, Leo Burmester (The Abyss) as Nathaniel, and John Lurie (Paris, Texas) as James. One other actor approached to join the disciples was Christopher Lloyd. He turned the offer down, a decision he later admitted he regretted.

Unsurprisingly the actors cast as the Apostles quickly formed into their own group, socialising extensively after each day’s shooting.

With its reduced budget there was no longer any possibility of shooting The Last Temptation in Israel, as Scorsese had originally planned. Production shifted instead to Morocco, where existing buildings and ruins could be used in lieu of fully constructed sets.

The original production designer, Boris Leven, had died in 1986. On the recommendation of fellow director Terry Gilliam, Scorsese hired John Beard as a replacement. Beard had served as art director on Gilliam’s film Brazil (1985), and had recently worked as production designer for Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners (1986). For Beard the design task became one of sourcing what existing buildings and ruins could be made to represent first-century Jerusalem.

The low budget also restricted the length of the shoot, and it became necessary to shoot the entire film in just 58 days; a problem exacerbated by Scorsese and Cocks’ lengthy screenplay. Slowing the pace of shooting was impossible. If weather precluded a location shoot on any given day, those scenes were relocated to indoors.

The production could only afford five stunt artists. Editor Thelma Schoomaker recalled: ‘He had five stuntmen from Italy and they had to play the Romans and the Jews. So he would shoot, first, the Jews jumping down and then he would change them into the Romans. It was horrendous.’[17]

Scorsese had little time to discuss each scene with his actors, and only a few takes for each shot. ‘Working with Marty,’ recalled Barbara Hershey, ‘when you really take off is when he says, “Okay, we’ve got it but now let’s try something.” We never had the time to do that. We had to be ready, take one. If I had to break down in a scene, I had to be preparing in make-up.’[18]

Shooting commenced on Wednesday 7 October, 1987. The first half of the film was shot in rural Morocco near Marrakesh. During the latter half of the shoot poor weather disrupted production, creating delays that Scorsese’s schedule could not easily afford. Assistant director Joe Reidy recalled that ‘we have a couple of acts of God that were just horrible to deal with. One was a flood during a heavy rainfall when we were shooting in the village on Umnast, outside of Marrakesh. The roads were cut off, and we couldn’t get back to Marrakesh. There was no communication, and we didn’t know what to do to find out how we could re-enter the city.’[19]

The fraught schedule was alleviated by Scorsese’s choice of cinematographer: German filmmaker Michael Ballhaus. Most famous for his lengthy collaboration with director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, he had started working with Scorsese after moving to America. The Last Temptation was their third film together following After Hours and The Color of Money. Not only was Ballhaus fast, he was inventive. When it became impossible to import a crane to the desert location, Ballhaus improvised a 14-foot camera arm that could achieve something approximating what Scorsese required.

As the film was shooting in relatively isolated locations in Morocco, Scorsese was unable to actually review his footage as he shot the film. Instead, footage would be shipped back to the USA for processing where Thelma Schoonmaker would review it on his behalf and report back via telephone.

The Last Temptation of Christ opens on a Jesus of Nazareth that seems almost unrecognisable from the Jesus of the Scriptures. He is a carpenter desperately attempting to ignore the growing calls to action from God. He is tormented by piercing headaches that swoop down upon him from above. He actively struggles to make himself unworthy of God’s attention, figuring if he can make himself the worst possible Jew then God will leave him alone and choose someone else to spread his word to the world. To that end he uses his carpentry skills to build crucifixes for the occupying Romans. In one hauntingly prescient shot we see him use his own body, arms stretched wide, to ensure he has cut the wood to the appropriate length. He subsequently carries the cross all the way to an execution, over his shoulders, where he then assists in the killing of a self-proclaimed prophet upon it.

This behaviour enrages his friend Judas, who is an active member of the rebellion making murderous strikes against Roman soldiers. ‘I struggle,’ shouts Judas, ‘you collaborate!’ It is a provocative inversion of the two characters. Jesus is the traitor to his people, and Judas – traditionally represented as the traitor to Jesus – is the heroic figure.

From the outset it is clear that Scorsese’s approach to the film’s language is a positive one. Without the artificiality of feigned accents, both Jesus and Judas immediately pop off the screen as actual people with proper human hopes, fears and aspirations. Harvey Keitel dominates their interactions at this stage, presenting his character with a surprisingly noble sense of outrage and fury. By contrast Jesus is meek and fearful. He is completely devoid of confidence.

Jesus decides that he needs to head out into the desert to clear his head, and to try and understand the nature of the torment impressed upon him by God. Before leaving, he heads to Magdala to beg forgiveness from Mary Magdalene.

The film is relatively subtle about Jesus and Mary’s back story, but it becomes clear that they were intended to marry but that he abandoned her. She has subsequently fallen heavily, and is now a sex worker entertaining merchants travelling through Magdala. When Jesus goes to speak to her, he must wait awkwardly for an entire day as the long queue of strangers each take turns in paying her for sex. It is a deliberately and almost entirely uncomfortable sequence, and further torment for Jesus in his current life.

Putting Jesus in the brothel was understandably one of the parts of the film most commonly cited by those protesting the film. ‘Magdala was a major crossroads for caravans,’ explained Scorsese, ‘merchants would meet there. And when you were in Magdala, the thing to do was to go see Mary. But the point of the scene was to show the proximity of sexuality to Jesus, the occasion of sin. Jesus must have seen a naked woman – must have. So why couldn’t we show that?’[20]

Barbara Hershey plays a strong, deeply resentful Mary. She goads Jesus to come to bed with her, because she knows how much the notion upsets him. She clearly wants him to suffer; back when he was carrying the cross to execution she spat on him in the street. She also clearly still loves him. Despite her resentment she gives him her blessing as he heads off to the desert.

In the film Mary is heavily tattooed; a visual appearance inspired by a National Geographic cover. Due to the film’s shoestring budget Hershey applied the tattoo make-up herself, re-applying it every few days before the day’s shooting.

The spirit of God continues to force itself on Jesus as he walks. It is visualised cleverly, with a mobile camera swooping down from above as if it was a bird. It is also quietly provocative: Scorsese uses a first-person perspective for these moments, as if it is the viewer who is God.

At a desert monastery Jesus meets an elderly priest. ‘I know who you are,’ the priest gently says, and insists Jesus rest there for the night. When Jesus wakes, he discovers that the priest was dead before he arrived – and is being buried that day. The priest is played by Roberts Blossom, an accomplished theatre actor probably best known for playing the old man Marley in Chris Columbus’ Home Alone (1990). It is a small but beautifully performed role, and one of several odd little highlights in the film. The stripped-back and intimate style employed on the film helps these highlight moments: Scorsese relies on the performances of his actors  to express the film’s emotion and message.

When Jesus talks to one of the monks afterwards he is able to clarify his feelings. He is desperately afraid of his own future, and of what he believes God is asking him to do. The conversation marks the character’s first major turning point in the film. He decides to simply follow where the voice of God is leading him, and to say whatever comes into his mind to say. Willem Dafoe plays the gradual changes in Jesus’ personality and mood wonderfully. Like the film generally, his is a deliberately simple performance that contrasts powerfully with the enormous cultural baggage that comes with the role. There have been numerous performances of Jesus in film over the past century or so; to my mind Dafoe’s is by far the best.

The following night Jesus is ambushed by Judas, who comes on orders from the Pharisees to kill him for collaborating with the Romans. Jesus does not resist and, struck by his words, Judas decides not to kill him but to follow him – for the time being. It is a turning point for Judas as much as for Jesus: the man of war now follows a man of peace.

Back in Magdala Jesus interrupts the stoning of Mary, standing forcibly between her and her attackers. There is a confidence to him now that did not exist before the desert. There is a slightly supernatural element to him now. When he challenges one of the leaders of the group, an elderly man named Zebedee, he immediately knows secrets about Zebedee’s life, and uses them to intimidate and scare him. Zebedee is played by Irvin Kershner, who was better known as a director than as an actor – particularly via his 1980 sequel The Empire Strikes Back.

After stopping Mary’s execution Jesus assembles a small crowd among some ancient ruins to preach to them: the famous Sermon on the Mount. This is one of those moments where the film’s small budget works in its favour. This is not a grand message delivered to a crowd of hundreds. Instead it is a tentative attempt at religious lessons through parable, delivered to a few dozen half-interested doubters. Significantly Jesus is not particularly good at it yet: this is his first attempt at preaching, and he is understandable not good at it.

For half of those attending, Jesus’ preaching has the opposite attempt. He tries to speak of the poor inheriting the Earth, which inspires a group to run off and murder the rich. A few remain, however, and choose to follow him: the first of his Apostles. ‘The Apostles,’ said Scorsese, ‘most of them, were tough guys who worked with their hands. Peter, the fisherman, was like a rough guy from the docks; he had a Brooklyn accent. Vic Argo, who played Peter, would walk around the set with a cigar in his mouth all the time. And when it was time to shoot, he’d say to me, “I have to lose the cigar, right?”’[21]

Judas struggles with the pacifism Jesus preaches. It is such a wonderful relationship throughout the film: both men assume the roles they feel they are supposed to assume, but both also continue to doubt and question those roles. Neither feels entirely comfortable at this stage. It is a distinctive choice – one borne in part from Kazantzakis’ novel – to make the emotional core of the film not Jesus himself, or Jesus and God, but Jesus and Judas. There is a beautiful moment, after one of their conversations, where the two men sleep together. There is not a sexual instinct in the entire exchange, but it is a strikingly loving moment. They sleep together, lying one upon the other’s shoulder against a tree.

At night Jesus eats from an apple. He throws a few seeds to the ground, where an apple tree magically appears. These moments of magical realism increase as the film goes on. They are fascinating in that they are supernatural occurrences to us as 21st century viewers, but taken by the film’s characters as very much part of the natural world. They are seen as wondrous, but not inexplicable.

‘That is a wonderful scene for me,’ said Scorsese, ‘when Jesus and Judas are in a granary and Jesus turns to him and says, “Isaiah came to me last night.” “What did he say?” Judas asks. Which in itself is kind of funny, that they’re living in a world where Isaiah could actually come to them at night. Or Jacob could struggle with an angel.’[22]

Another beautiful supernatural moment comes when Jesus goes to meet John the Baptist and be baptised. They meet at the river, where a raucous crowd of John’s followers dance and chant around him. The moment John finally recognised Jesus as the son of God, the sounds of those followers fades away and all the two men can hear are each other and the river.

After meeting with John, Jesus heads out alone into the desert to fully understand his purpose. He leaves his Apostles behind. While in the desert he is confronted three times by the Devil: first as a snake with the voice of Mary, then as a lion with the voice of Judas, and finally as a brilliant jet of flame. Finally, having resisted all three temptations, Jesus is met by the spirit of John the Baptist, who challenges him to take an axe and cut down a tree. Jesus does so: he realises that love and compassion is not enough, and that he most bring down the old world to bring about a new one.

The non-literal interpretations of Satan works tremendously to the film’s advantage, and work well on a symbolic level: Mary as the temptation of sex, Judas a temptation of rage, and then finally Satan himself as a bright pillar of fire. Notably, it gives the film a traditional narrative villain against whom Jesus may struggle.

The voice of Satan was provided by Leo Marks, a World War II cryptographer who had subsequently written the screenplay to Michael Powell’s 1960 thriller Peeping Tom. Scorsese, a keen admirer of that film, got to know Marks socially and invited him to perform the role.

Jesus is tempted again on his way out of the desert by two women living together: another Mary and her sister Martha. They encourage him to abandon his religious preaching and settle down with one of them to have children. It is a different temptation to those presented by Satan: it is the temptation of an ordinary life. Mary and Martha were played by Randy Danson and Peggy Gormley respectively.

With Jesus gone in the desert for weeks, his Apostles begin to lose patience. In another sign of the film’s strong and inventive handling of its characters, it is Judas who insists they continue to wait for Jesus to return. By contrast Peter is presented as relatively weak-willed, fervently agreeing with one Apostle for a moment, and then fervently agreeing with another when the conversation shifts back. It is perhaps an understandable flaw of the film that we do not, Judas and Peter aside, get any strong insight into the Apostles. They behave almost entirely as an anonymous group than as individuals. This does leave the film to focus on the core relationship between Jesus and Judas, but at the same time it feels as if there was an opportunity missed.

Jesus returns. He opens his robe and pulls out his own heart in front of them. ‘Actually,’ said Scorsese, ‘that scene, which was not in the Kazantzakis book, was written by Paul Schrader, a Dutch Calvinist, and it was kind of nudged to me as a Catholic. He also wanted to show that the supernatural and the natural exist on the same plane.’[23]

Jesus goes out to drive spirits from the possessed, and challenges guests at a wedding in Cana by allowing Mary Magdalene to attend. The Cana scenes present Jesus in the most traditional way of the entire film: the long hair and beard, kind face, warmly teaching and inspiring those around him.

By contrast his raising of Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus from the dead is shot in a deeply unsettling fashion. When he tries to pull Lazarus from the tomb he is almost pulled back in himself. The resurrected Lazarus does not look immediately revived and healthy. His skin seems decayed and split. Even days later, when he is murdered by Saul to keep Jesus’ miracles secret, he looks haunted and somehow less than present.

To my mind these darker, more desolate feeling scenes fit the overall tone of Scorsese’s film far better than the more beautified and iconic ones such as the wedding at Cana. Scenes that draw too closely to the Renaissance ideal of Jesus and the Passion feel less accessible and immediate than the contrasting versions.

The film’s Jerusalem scenes were largely shot in Meknes, in Morocco’s north. Jesus immediately goes about challenging the religious authorities, resulting in his becoming a wanted man. Willem Dafoe does a remarkable job playing a Jesus filled with anger and rage. He brings a strong potential for violence in these scenes that accentuate Jesus the man over Jesus the God. Ultimately, however, a violent resurrection never happens: at the crucial moment Jesus fails to give the order for his followers to attack the temple priests and guards. It is another key transition for the character: he has misinterpreted God’s instructions, and violence is not the tool to destroy the old world as he thought. There is some wonderful imagery in these scenes, with the interior of the temple resembling a cross in several key shots. The imagery turns out to be partially unintended: Scorsese and Ballhaus only noticed the images once the cameras were placed.

While hiding from the temple guards, Jesus admits to Judas that God has made his destiny clear: he is to die on the cross, and Judas is to betray him. ‘Of my friends,’ he explains, ‘you’re the strongest.’

‘That’s why I thought it was so interesting in Kazantzakis’ book,’ said Scorsese, ‘that Judas is almost the hero. The whole concept was that the betrayer, Judas, was the key player, because if there is to be a sacrifice, and if there’s to be this extraordinary redemption, then everyone around Jesus is part of a plan. Nobody’s to be blamed, nobody’s to be cursed, it’s all got to happen. And by the way, Judas, you’re the one who’s going to have to be the fall guy.’[24]

It is a hugely contentious re-working of Judas’ role in the story, since Christian theology overwhelmingly paints him as a traitor to Jesus. The Last Temptation re-imagines him as a co-conspirator, one who must defy his own instincts and love for his best friend to feign a betrayal and ensure that he dies. As I noted at the beginning of this essay, I am not particularly religious. I do not feel I can sufficiently comment on the theological implications of Jesus and Judas’ friendship and roles in The Last Temptation. Purely as the viewer of a dramatic film, it is powerful and effective. Keitel and Dafoe’s performances make this a momentous and quite painful interaction between them.

Judas goes through with the betrayal, Jesus is captured by Roman soldiers and sentenced to death by the Jewish Pharisees. Before he is formally condemned, he is taken to see the Roman governor Pontius Pilate.

When it came to casting the role of Pilate, Sting – Scorsese’s original choice – was on tour and unavailable. Scorsese offered the role to David Bowie, who had been considered for the role in the 1983 production but had been similarly unavailable. Bowie accepted the offer after a short meeting. ‘I was a little taken aback when I met Bowie,’ Scorsese admitted, ‘he was such a quiet and concentrated and thoughtful man, and he was truly humble.’[25]

Jesus’ meeting with Pilate took three days to shoot. It is a remarkable scene, dominated by Bowie’s unexpectedly understated performance. He – and the screenplay – presents Pilate as a disapproving father figure, who does not see a different between Jesus and every other self-proclaimed prophet and messiah that gets dragged before him by the incensed Pharisees. It is a master stroke to play the scene from Pilate’s side in such a matter-of-fact fashion. A lesser actor would have attempted to make more of the part than was required; instead, Bowie simply presents the governor as a bored bureaucrat tired of having to order executions all of the time. His banality is what makes him so fascinating to watch.

When Pilate sentences Jesus to crucifixion on the skull-covered hill of Golgatha, it is with more of a sense of disappointment than anything else. Of those skulls, he says ‘I do wish you people would go up there and count them sometime. You might learn a lesson.’

‘Probably not,’ he adds under his breath, before quietly leaving the scene.

Jesus is whipped, and has a crown of thorns placed upon his head. In retrospect these moments do not seem as horrific as they might previously have been, with Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ pushing the envelope on physical violence in the Passion to such an extreme that anything less now seems slightly sanitised. That said, it is deeply confronting when Jesus suddenly stares right down the barrel of the camera at his audience, freshly whipped, the crown of thorns jammed into his flesh. Remember that the film has already co-opted the point-of-view shot for God’s presence over Jesus; now he is staring right at the audience-as-God in an almost accusatory fashion.

There is another striking moment as a tortured and bleeding Jesus carries his cross up to Golgotha. The Jerusalem alleyways are too narrow for the task, and he keeps having to tilt the crossbeam to squeeze through. One moment is captured in extreme slow motion, with the composition of the actors and the camera so beautifully framed that it feels like a Renaissance painting.

The climactic crucifixion scene was shot at a breakneck pace, with 60 camera set-ups undertaken in just three days. Scorsese was intent on presenting a cross with a sedile, a small ledge upon which the crucified victim would place their feet. It was thought of by the Romans to prolong each victim’s suffering, by enabling them to temporarily recover from the enormous pressure the crucifixion placed on their lungs. Sedile or otherwise, Willem Dafoe found remaining on the cross for more than a few minutes at a time excruciatingly painful: simply by being tied up to the cross he was voluntarily experiencing much of the same strain suffered by the genuine victims of the Roman Empire. Over the course of the entire film shoot he had broken three toes, lost two toenails and fractured several ribs.

On a visual level it is a beautifully composed scene. The cross is raised, Jesus nailed to it, from the cross’ point of view. As it rises, the vista swings down from the sky above to the hill below. One striking shot is taken at a 90 degree angle, so that Jesus appears to be lying down. As he leans forward in agony in seems like he is straining upwards instead.

At the peak of Jesus’ agony, an angel appears to him in the form of a teenage girl. She commends him for his faith, and tells him God does not want him to die after all. It was a test of faith, and now he is free to live a normal life. Jesus walks away from the cross, supernaturally unseen by those who were watching him and jeering. He vanishes into obscurity in a married life with Mary Magdalene, and when Mary dies he remarries polygamously with Mary and Martha. He has many children. At first it seems clear that the scenes are a hallucination, but as they stretch on and Jesus grows still older, the possibility does come to mind that these are not hallucinatory at all.

An elderly Jesus meets Saul of Tarsus preaching in the street. He challenges Saul’s accounts of what happened, and insists he is the real Jesus and that he did not die on the cross. A cynical Saul pulls Jesus away, and explains that the story does not need the real Jesus any more. People will believe what they are told, because the message is more important than the man who inspired it. ‘I’m glad I met you,’ Saul says, ‘because now I can forget all about you.’

Saul was played by Harry Dean Stanton. Despite a few early appearances in the film – he and his men murder Lazarus, for example – this is his one key scene. He is exceptional in it, and the ideas expressed in such a short count of minutes are hugely powerful and challenging. It seems like Jesus the man, around whom the film has been so carefully based, is irrelevant once his crucifixion has occurred.

At the end of his life, and with Jerusalem burning to the ground in a Roman massacre, Jesus is confronted one final time by Judas, who rails against him for weakening at the most critical moment. Judas voluntarily betrayed him, and now in return Jesus has betrayed the entire purpose of his life. In the final moment, he succumbed to the greatest of all the temptation presented to him: an ordinary, mundane life.

A dying Jesus crawls on hands and knees all the way back to Golgotha, and begs God to let him retake his place on the cross. In a moment his pleas are answered, and he back where he was. The extended ‘last temptation’ sequence is a creative masterpiece, as it expresses in lengthy and powerful ways the humanity of Jesus. All of the potential futures and desires for Jesus that were denied by his crucifixion get to play out for the audience. When he returns to the cross at the film’s end, it is with a much greater and more intimate understanding of what Jesus the man sacrificed in order to become Jesus the God. It is no coincidence that the film ends at this point, and does not continue to his resurrection three days later. The film focuses on the man, and the man’s life ends here. ‘It is accomplished,’ cries Jesus as he dies on the cross. The screen burns to a flickering bright light before cutting to the closing credits.

‘Very hard to translate and get the power and the meaning,’ admitted Scorsese. ‘“It is finished.” “It is completed.” “It’s over.” Can’t use that – too Roy Orbison. What was the translation we were taught in Catholic school? “It is consummated.” The Kazantzakis book used “It is accomplished,” because Jesus had accomplished a task, accomplished a goal.’[26]

The strange burst of light came about entirely by accident: the film magazine contain the crucifixion footage momentarily split open, leaking light onto the film and causing the over-exposure. It seemed such a striking and appropriate piece of imagery that Scorsese kept it in the film’s final cut.

With the film complete, Scorsese returned to the USA to begin post-production. The shoot, scheduled almost impossibly for 58 days, had ultimately taken 62.

The film’s score was composed by pop musician Peter Gabriel, who had developed a keen interest in traditional music from around the world. In 1980 he had co-founded the international music festival WOMAD, and by 1989 had also spearheaded the distribution of Middle Eastern, African and Asian musicians worldwide through his new record label Real World. Gabriel’s intense fascination with what was generally referred to as ‘world music’ made him a strong and innovative choice for The Last Temptation of Christ.

Scorsese had originally approached Gabriel about providing the film’s score back when the 1983 version of the film was in pre-production, and six years later Gabriel remains keen to participate. He recruited a wide range of musicians to contribute to the Last Temptation soundtrack. The film’s striking opening track was a traditional Armenian melody titled “The Wind Subsides”, featuring Vatche Housepian and Antranik Askarian on the duduk. The last supper scene featured the Sengalese singer Baaba Maal performing a Muslim call to prayer. Other melodies and performers were drawn from Egypt, Pakistan, India, Turkey, Ivory Coast and Kurdistan.

Peter Gabriel’s score has a profound effect on the film. Without a traditional Hollywood score the film is successfully dislocated from a long heritage of overly worthy and earnest Biblical pictures. It emphasises the very different world in which Jesus and his Apostles live. Jesus’ miracles suddenly seem to exist in an alien world where such supernatural occurrences seem not only possible but almost expected.

Martin Scorsese accepted all of Gabriel’s musical compositions bar one. ‘We did one piece with a boys’ choir,’ explained Gabriel. ‘We tried used it for the scene where the angel/devil takes Jesus off the cross. It was the only traditional religious music in the entire film. I liked it – I loved it, in fact – and I was disappointed that Marty didn’t want to use it. It would have been the only time we used traditional church music. The devil’s music, if you like, would have been religious.’[27]

The Last Temptation score was re-developed as an original album, which Gabriel titled Passion. A second album, Passion Sources, featured the traditional melodies and artists whose work inspired Gabriel’s own.

With the film in post-production, Universal Pictures’ marketing team finally started to tackle the problem of precisely how to promote and advertise it. In an attempt to be pro-active, the decision was made to promote the film to the very Christian communities that had protested the original Paramount production. A producer named Tim Penland, himself a born-again Christian, was hired to help shepherd the film through the various community groups and ministries that might support a faith-affirming religion picture. A preview screening was tentatively arranged for June 1988, based on the assumption that Scorsese would have a completed edit of the film by that time.

Sadly for Universal, key religious groups moved faster than the studio did. The letter writing campaigns and boycott threats sparked up again, only this time they seemed even more aggressive and strident than before. To make matters worse several groups conflated news of The Last Temptation with a long-abandoned arthouse film titled The Many Faces of Jesus, which purported to include Jesus having sex with both Mary Magdalene and the Apostle John. That film, to be directed by Danish filmmaker Jens Jorgen Thorson, had first been proposed in the late 1970s. Once the conflation had been made it spread through evangelical communities like a brushfire. Before long the protests were not simply about a film adapting Kazantzakis’ novel; they were protesting what was believed to be a homosexual parody of the Gospels.

The Reverend Donald Wildmon, who had protested the Paramount production and had been one of the evangelists directly approached by Universal Pictures to see the film for himself, led the initial charge against it. He condemned the film unseen in the newsletter of the American Families Association (AFA), which boasted a regular print run of 330,000 copies. His protests were soon joined by a chain of similar conservative Christian organisations and protest groups. From there radio and television evangelists picked up the baton, in one case leading to the telephone switchboard at Universal getting jammed by simultaneous calls. At a widely reported press conference of conservative leaders, the Reverend Lloyd Ogilvie described The Last Temptation as ‘the most serious misuse of film craft in the history of moviemaking.’ Evangelist Bill Bright offered Universal Pictures $10 million to purchase the film entirely so that he could destroy the print.

‘I expected some controversy,’ Scorsese later recalled. ‘But I expected it to be intelligent. I expected discussion and dialogue.’[28]

In July General Cinema – the fourth-largest theatre chain in the USA – confirmed it would not book The Last Temptation of Christ into any of its 1,300 theatres. Independent cinemas followed suit in Baltimore, Portland and Southern California.

On 12 July a group of Southern California Protestant ministers banded together to announce a proposed boycott of all businesses owned by MCA – Universal’s parent company – should Universal not cancel the film’s release. The minister claimed that the studio has reneged on an offer to let them see the film in advance. In response, Universal released a statement claiming that: ‘These individuals declined an invitation to see the film and consequently much of what they are saying is inaccurate and exaggerated.’[29]

Willem Dafoe said: ‘I thought, “This is a world where we have slasher movies and porn movies – why are people going to get upset about this?” Of course, that was naive. Politically, it was used as a rallying point to satisfy an agenda that had nothing to do with the movie.’[30]

‘I think it was great material,’ said Harry Dean Stanton. ‘I think that film will be around for years, in spite of all the protests from the whole Christian world who didn’t want to see Christ as a human being.’[31]

On 2 August, Italian director Franco Zeffirelli withdrew his film The Young Toscanini from the Venice Film Festival in protest at The Last Temptation of Christ’s inclusion in the festival program. Describing Scorsese’s film as ‘truly horrible, completely deranged’, he added that ‘what I find insufferable is the provocation this film presents for the Catholic and Christian world.’[32] Shortly afterwards a Milanese lawyer applied for the Venetian courts to ban the film under Italian blasphemy laws; that case died due to a legal technicality. A similar attempt was lodged and dismissed in Greece.

Martin Scorsese’s only comment on Zeffirelli’s outburst was to note that the Italian director could not possibly have seen the film to comment upon it: even the director of the festival had travelled personally to New York to see it.

By the time the festival opened in September, Zeffirelli had quietly returned his own film to the festival schedule. It was savaged by the critics, and quickly forgotten. In the meantime the local press had savaged Zeffirelli over an apparent remark he had made describing The Last Temptation as a product of ‘that Jewish cultural scum of Los Angeles’.[33] Zeffirelli strenuously denied ever making the comment, and vowed to never return to the Venice Film Festival.

When some letters turned from protest to threats, the release of The Last Temptation became a serious concern. The film was originally scheduled for an October release following a premiere in September at the New York Film Festival.  The growing storm of protest and boycott threats led Universal Pictures to bring forward the film’s release schedule by a month. On 4 August the studio confirmed it would open the film just eight days later in nine American cities, in order to allow the film itself to be their response to the widespread controversy. The studio’s statement read: ‘Few motion pictures in recent memory have generated such heated debate, especially when so few people have actually seen the film. Rumors have proliferated. Exaggerations, misconceptions and scenes taken out of context have added fuel to the fire. The best thing that can be done for The Last Temptation of Christ at this time is to make it available to the American people and allow them to draw their own conclusions based on fact, not fallacy.’[34]

On 11 August, the day before the film’s release, 7,500 people assembled outside Universal Studios to protest the film. The majority of the crowd stemmed from the American Family Association. As the only parking available in the area was located at the adjacent Universal Studio Tour, it was estimated that Universal Pictures earned roughly $4,500 in parking fees from the protest.

On the same day the Roman Catholic Church formally labelled the film ‘morally objectionable’, although for context that same label was applied to other Hollywood releases of the time including The Dead Pool, Die Hard, A Fish Called Wanda and Bull Durham.

The Last Temptation of Christ opened on 12 August 1988 across nine American cities. Religious groups formed protests at most cinemas screening the film, albeit on a much smaller scale than on the previous day. A few days before the film opened John Quinn, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of San Francisco, had urged offended parishioners to simply not watch the film.

The protests were still met with resistance by the Hollywood community. The Directors Guild of America published an open statement defending Scorsese’s artistic vision; that statement was signed by numerous filmmakers including Michael Mann, Penny Marshall, Warren Beatty and Peter Bogdanovich. ‘Christianity survived for 2,000 years,’ said director Sydney Pollack. ‘It will survive Martin Scorsese’s $6.5 million movie.’[35]

Despite the continual protests, the cast of The Last Temptation remained free from harassment or criticism. ‘They don’t blame the actor,’ Willem Dafoe later claimed. ‘They think actors are whores, and they don’t hold them responsible.’[36]

During the film’s release Scorsese was very cagey about whether or not violent threats had been made against him personally. In Film Comment he simply told interviewer Richard Corliss ‘let’s just say there are a lot of people around. Privacy is gone, and everyone is very careful.’[37]

While the film was generally well received by critics, it did not capture the attention of audiences. Evangelical groups stayed away en masse, and the broader audience simply did not care enough about a Biblical adaptation to attend. Its release peaked at 133 theatres nationwide, and grossed less than $8.4 million. Due to some clever financial arrangements – half of the budget was paid for by Cineplex Odeon, after all – Universal Pictures walked away with a wafer-thin profit of roughly $700,000.

The first international release of The Last Temptation was in the United Kingdom. Before it had even been confirmed for local distribution, the National Viewers and Listener’s Association – a conservative lobby group founded and chaired by Mary Whitehouse – had organised an ultimately unsuccessful campaign to have the film banned from release under British anti-blasphemy laws.

To ensure full care was taken in assessing the film’s suitability for release the British Board of Film Classification invited a delegation of 28 church officials to attend a review screening and provide their feedback. It was ultimately released in the United Kingdom uncut, and with an 18 rating – indicating no one under the age of 18 years could see it. It was still possible under British law for local councils to independently override the BBFC and ban cinemas from screening specific titles. 30 separate councils requested a preview screening of The Last Temptation, but only three actually banned it from release in their towns.

The London Transport Authority caused a mild controversy by banning promotional posters of the film being displayed in the London Underground, despite no one having actually contacted the Authority to complain. At the same time several credible bomb threats were made against the local distributor United International Pictures (UIP), leading security to be stepped up considerably at their London offices including the installation of explosion-resistant windows. With London still dealing with the very real threat of IRA bombings, no one was prepared to take any chances.

In France resistance to the film’s release turned violent. Its opening was met with violent assaults of moviegoers, and the throwing of tear gas and stink bombs into theatres in Paris, Lyon, Nice, and Grenoble. In one egregious case an entire movie theatre was deliberately set on fire, resulting in 13 patrons being hospitalised.

A representative of UIP stated that ‘the opponents of the film have largely won. They have massacred the film’s success, and they have scared the public.’[38]

The Archbishop of Paris, who had successfully blocked the French government from funding the film, condemned the violence. ‘You don’t behave as Christians,’ he warned, ‘but as enemies of Christ. From the Christian point of view, one doesn’t defend Christ with arms. Christ himself forbade it.’[39]

With time, and the absence of protests, The Last Temptation of Christ became re-evaluated by many and its reputation gradually increased. Today it is often cited as one of Martin Scorsese’s finest films. There simply is not a film about Jesus that is quite like it. It carves away the divinity, simply leaving the man behind. ‘The human part,’ said Schrader, ‘always gets short shrift because it’s uncomfortable to deal with. This film may err on the side of the humanity of Jesus, but it does very little to counteract the centuries of erring the church has done on the other side.’[40]

The doubts and fears of the film’s version of Jesus challenge traditional notions of Christ, and by presenting an ordinary man who is pushed to his limits and tempted to the greatest extremity, but still voluntarily sacrificing his life for all people after him, Martin Scorsese has arguably created one of the most innately spiritual and Christian feature films ever made. Even without a shred of religious belief, the viewer can still find it a powerful, provocative and enormously affecting experience. It remains one of my all-time favourite films.

[1] Michael Henry Wilson, Scorsese on Scorsese, Cahiers du Cinema, Paris, 2005.

[2] John Sanidopoulos, “The myth of the excommunication of Nikos Kazantzakis”, Mystagogy Resource Center, 31 January 2014.

[3] Alex Williams, “Are we ever going to make this picture?”, The Guardian, 3 January 2003.

[4] Thomas R. Lindlof, Hollywood Under Siege: Martin Scorsese, the Religion Right, and the Culture Wars, University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 2008.

[5] Michael Henry Wilson, Scorsese on Scorsese, Cahiers du Cinema, Paris, 2005.

[6] Caryn James, “Paul Schrader talks of Last Temptation and his new film”, New York Times, 1 September 1988.

[7] Myra Forsberg, “Barbara Hershey: in demand”, New York Times, 29 March 1987.

[8] Caryn James, “Paul Schrader talks of Last Temptation and his new film”, New York Times, 1 September 1988.

[9] Richard Corliss, “…and blood”, Film Comment, Sep-Oct 1988.

[10] Mary Pat Kelly, Martin Scorsese: A Journey, Thunder’s Mouth Press, New York, 1991.

[11] Hermoine Holby, “Willem Dafoe interview for A Most Wanted Man: ‘I’m not mad and I’m not bad’”, The Daily Telegraph, 8 September 2014.

[12] Diana Drumm, “Interview: Willem Dafoe”, Slant, 9 October 2014.

[13] David Morgan, “Interview with actor Harvey Keitel”, Wide Angle/Closeup, January 1992. (http://www.wideanglecloseup.com/keitel.html)

[14] Ethan Silverman, “Harvey Keitel”, BOMB: Artists in Conversation, Fall 1990. (http://bombmagazine.org/article/1365/harvey-keitel)

[15] Richard Shickel, Conversations with Scorsese: Updated and Expanded. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2013.

[16] Richard Shickel, Conversations with Scorsese: Updated and Expanded. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2013.

[17] Kristopher Tapley, “Thelma Schoomaker recalls the heated controversy and moving testament of The Last Temptation of Christ”, Hitfix, 25 December 2013. (http://www.hitfix.com/in-contention/thelma-schoonmaker-recalls-the-heated-controversy-and-moving-testament-of-the-last-temptation-of-christ#8Qvd829EMUfVWoV5.99)

[18] Mary Pat Kelly, Martin Scorsese: A Journey, Thunder’s Mouth Press, New York, 1991.

[19] Mary Pat Kelly, Martin Scorsese: A Journey, Thunder’s Mouth Press, New York, 1991.

[20] Richard Corliss, “…and blood”, Film Comment, Sep-Oct 1988.

[21] Richard Corliss, “…and blood”, Film Comment, Sep-Oct 1988.

[22] Richard Shickel, Conversations with Scorsese: Updated and Expanded. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2013.

[23] Richard Corliss, “…and blood”, Film Comment, Sep-Oct 1988.

[24] Richard Shickel, Conversations with Scorsese: Updated and Expanded. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2013.

[25] Devan Coggan, “Martin Scorsese pays tribute to ‘extraordinary artist’ David Bowie”, Entertainment Weekly, 11 January 2016.

[26] Richard Corliss, “…and blood”, Film Comment, Sep-Oct 1988.

[27] Mary Pat Kelly, Martin Scorsese: A Journey, Thunder’s Mouth Press, New York, 1991.

[28] Richard Shickel, Conversations with Scorsese: Updated and Expanded. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2013.

[29] Aljean Harmetz, “Ministers vow boycott over Scorsese film on Jesus”, New York Times, 13 July 1988.

[30] Steve Rose, “Willem Dafoe: ‘You do your best work when you’re scared’”, The Guardian, 5 July 2012. (http://www.theguardian.com/film/2012/jul/04/willem-defoe-hunter-interview)

[31] Alex Simon, “Harry Dean Stanton: American Character”, Venice Magazine, August 1997.

[32] Quoted in “Zeffirelli protests Temptation of Christ”, Reuters, 3 August 1988.

[33] Clyde Haberman, “Scorsese’s Last Temptation creates furor at Venice festival”, New York Times, 8 September 1988.

[34] Aljean Harmetz, “Scorsese Temptation gets early release, New York Times, 5 August 1988.

[35] Aljean Harmetz, “The Last Temptation of Christ opens to protests but good sales”, New York Times, 13 August 1988.

[36] Steven Hyden, “Willem Dafoe” AV Club, 25 September 2007.

[37] Richard Corliss, “…and blood”, Film Comment, Sep-Oct 1988.

[38] Steven Greenhouse, “Police suspect arson in fire at Paris theater”, New York Times, 25 October 1988.

[39] Steven Greenhouse, “Police suspect arson in fire at Paris theater”, New York Times, 25 October 1988.

[40] Caryn James, “Paul Schrader talks of Last Temptation and his new film”, New York Times, 1 September 1988.

6 thoughts on ““I am the saint of blasphemy” | The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

  1. Congratulations o your exquisite article! It’s the professionally best and most complete essay on „The Last Temptation Of Christ“ I could find on the net, a little treasure. I would like to ask you something concerning it: I am a professional German theatre actor, writer and director (my homepage: https://www.stefanclimbrunner.net), also a former teacher/lecturer for film history and performing arts. AND I am the author of film historical/ film critical blog myself (here: http://uncahierducinema.blogspot.de). Here comes my question: Since I am considering to maybe bring an article about the background story of “The Last Temptation” around christmas time (there is already an article on the blog about the film but it tackles only a specific review of a famous German critic) and since I don’t think I could do a better job than you did – would you agree to let my host a German translation of your article – granted of course that you would be named as the original and sole author, the text including the appendix with the source would be left intact and the original would also be linked; I would function as translator only and would say so in an introductory note – on my blog? I think your article is good enough to be made available to a wider array of non-English-speaking readers. Just a question. Feel free to answer me at any time.

    1. Hi Stefan, that’s absolutely fine. Feel free to come back and add a link to your German translation here in the comments if you do it.

  2. Dear Mr. Watson,

    The German translation of your essay is now line; all promises I made were kept. I took the liberty to write a little addendum (after the end of your text, marked in italics and credited as a translator’s note) about the specific reaction to the film in Germany, which is not covered in your essay. If you would like to have a translation of that part, I can provide it.


  3. Great text about this movie!

    Saw the movie yesterday for the first time, it is very powerful union of sound and image…

    i had a psychodelic feeling with this film…

    Thank you from Brasil!

    PS: This movie is unavailable in Netflix Brasil… people from here would have serious problems in being open minded to this way of telling this story…

  4. Good article I’ve seen the movie a couple of times while it’s not my favorite movie or movie based on the Bible it has ideas that could attract people believers and non believers alike into accepting Jesus as man which he was but as God.I wonder why nobody hasn’t taking risks in telling other Stories from the Bible other than Moses and Jesus.I remember Noah in 2014 and it was awful indeed.I wish I could meet and talk with Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader because they could understand my feelings about faith,Hollywood,and the entertainment industry at large.

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