FILM (1988)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 June, 2011, 12:00am


The Last Temptation of Christ
Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Steve Shill
Director: Martin Scorsese

God must be the father of all fathers, so is he a little miffed that his son gets all the best parts? While Jesus has inspired some great performances in the movies, God is more often than not a walk-on part.

True, God has been played by Robert Mitchum, Morgan Freeman and James Garner, but he is most often than not a comic turn: see George Burns, Groucho Marx, Graham Chapman (of Monty Python) and, er, Alanis Morrisette. Meanwhile, Christian Bale, Robert Powell, Max von Sydow and James Caviezel have all portrayed Christ.

Never has the relationship been played out to more intense, or controversial, effect than in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ. Based on Nikos Kazantzakis' novel and adapted by Paul Schrader, the film examines Jesus through his dual nature as son of man and son of God. At its heart is a tortured Willem Dafoe trapped in a dialogue with a persistently absent father, who is never there when he needs him.

Dafoe's is a schizophrenic Christ, asking questions that never seem to be answered. This is Jesus the vulnerable human being, tormented by his calling. The carpenter who makes the very crosses that will one day kill him and redeem mankind. The prophet who wants nothing more than to live like any other man, the Messiah wracked by fear.

'I'm a liar, a hypocrite. I'm afraid of everything. I don't ever tell the truth, I don't have the courage. When I see a woman, I blush and turn away. I want her but I don't take her - for God. And that makes me proud ... I don't steal, I don't fight and I don't kill. Not because I don't want to but because I'm afraid.'

Again and again, Scorsese expresses this struggle as a fight with Jesus' fathers, divine and earthly. 'Do you want to know who my mother and father are? Do you want to know who my God is?' he asks Jeroboam early in the film. 'Fear. If you look inside me, that is all you'll find.'

The climactic crucifixion scene plays out in Jesus' mind as an existential family drama. As he staggers, bloodied, flayed and terrified, towards the cross, we hear his thoughts: 'Father, I am sorry for being a bad son.' Just before the centurion hammers the nails through his palms, he prays: 'Father, stay with me. Don't leave me.' His final words, before he is offered the last temptation, are the most famous of all: 'Father, why have you forsaken me?'

In this psychological context, it seems fitting and supremely devilish that his final trial is a vision of a normal, contented life as a husband, friend and, of course, father. There is a happy ending, of sorts: 'It is accomplished,' Jesus whispers with his dying breath. We hope he made his father proud.