Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Last Temptation of Christ, The

US movie (1988). Universal/Cineplex Odeon. Pr Barbara De Fina. Exec pr Harry Ufland. Dir Martin Scorsese. Spfx Dino Galliano. Screenplay Paul Schrader. Based on The Last Temptation of Christ (1955) by Nikos Kazantzakis. Starring Victor Argo (Peter), Michael Been (John), Verna Bloom (Mary the Mother), David Bowie (Pontius Pilate), Juliette Caton (Angel), Willem Dafoe (Jesus), Randy Danson (Mary, sister of Lazarus), Peggy Gormley (Martha), Andre Gregory (John the Baptist), Barbara Hershey (Mary Magdalene), Harvey Keitel (Judas), Harry Dean Stanton (Saul of Tarsus). 163 mins. Colour.

Tormented by the knowledge that he is the Chosen One of God – or sometimes convinced he is possessed by Satan, who tells him to aggrandize himself – Jesus (> Christ) the humble carpenter builds crosses for the Romans and collaborates in the crucifixion of Jewish rebels, hoping God will come to hate him and seek elsewhere. His sole friend, Judas, loathes his actions but seeks to redeem him. At last bowing to the truth, Jesus begs forgiveness of the prostitute whom he loves, Mary Magdalene, and goes to seek spiritual guidance among desert hermits. There he succeeds in casting out the Serpents of Evil from within himself; there, too, comes Judas, sent to slay the collaborator but soon convinced by Jesus's new gospel of Love to become the first disciple of the Messiah. Together, having stopped the stoning of Mary Magdalene, they gather apostles. Meeting John the Baptist, a desert fanatic, Jesus is told by him that love is not enough: there must also be righteous anger; seeking counsel from God about this in the desert, Jesus is three times tempted by the Devil and returns assured John was right. He travels the land performing Exorcism, Healing and Miracles. Entering Jerusalem, with the possibility of leading the mob to cast out the Romans, he develops the stigmata and realizes the Story of which he is the focus cannot be thwarted: he commands Judas, his truest friend, to betray him, and is seized to be crucified on Golgotha.

But on the cross, as he begs mercy of God, an Angel comes in the guise of a young child and releases him from the burden of godhood. With her as his constantly present guardian, he weds Mary Magdalene and then, when she dies, another Mary, Lazarus's sister, becoming the lover also of her sister Martha. Life is good until, in late middle age, he encounters the freshly converted Saul who, discovering Jesus's identity, tells him he is unimportant beside the fictional Jesus who died and was resurrected: that Jesus may be a lie, but one that will save the world. And on his deathbed Jesus is visited by three of the apostles and by Judas, who condemns him for his betrayal of them – "Your place was on the cross" – and reveals the girl-angel to him as Satan in disguise: Jesus has succumbed to the Devil's last temptation, that of being a man rather than God. But God grants his final wish to be returned to the cross, where he expires content in the knowledge that the Story has reached its accomplishment.

Kazantzakis said he wrote this Christian Fantasy out of deep love for Jesus; the movie is redolent of that same integrity. The Holy Land is portrayed as an alien world, comprehensible to us only through the humanity we share with the Story's protagonists: jarring at first, the characters' street-US accents soon cement that bond. The acting and photography are exquisite; the music, by Peter Gabriel, is as fine. The fallible, uncertain, imperfect Jesus emerges as a figure of great stature – for he lacks the sin of pride.

TLTOC was widely campaigned against by many Christian fundamentalists, who perhaps saw themselves depicted here not as disciples but as Romans. [JG]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.