by Ellis Harding
The Last Temptation of Christ is a 1988 fictional drama film directed by Martin Scorsese. It is a film adaptation of the controversial 1953 novel of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis.
Like the novel, the film depicts the life of Jesus Christ and his struggle with various forms of temptation including fear, doubt, depression, reluctance and lust. These results in the book and film depicting Christ being tempted by imagining himself engaged in sexual activities, a notion that has caused outrage from some Christians. The movie includes a disclaimer explaining that it departs from the commonly-accepted Biblical portrayal of Jesus’ life, and is not based on the Gospels.
The Last Temptation of Christ’s eponymous final sequence depicts the crucified Jesus—tempted by what turns out to be Satan in the form of a beautiful, androgynous child—experiencing a dream or alternative reality where he comes down from the cross, marries Mary Magdalene (and later Mary and Martha), and lives out his life as a full mortal man. He learns on his deathbed that he was deceived by Satan and begs God to let him “be [God’s] son,” at which point he finds himself once again on the cross. At other points in the film, Jesus is depicted as building crosses for the Romans, being tormented by the voice of God, and lamenting the many sins he believes he has committed.
Because of these radical departures from the gospel narratives—and especially a brief scene wherein Jesus and Mary Magdalene consummate their marriage—several Christian fundamentalist groups organized vocal protests and boycotts of the film prior to and upon its release. One protest, organized by a religious Californian radio station, gathered 600 protesters to picket the headquarters of Universal Studios’ parent company MCA; one of the protestors dressed as MCA’s Chairman Lew Wasserman and pretended to drive nails through Jesus’ hands into a wooden cross. Bill Bright, of Campus Crusade for Christ, offered to buy the film’s negative from Universal in order to destroy it. The protests were effective in convincing several theater chains not to screen the film; one of those chains, General Cinemas, later apologized to Scorsese for doing so.