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The Last Temptation of Christ (film)

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The Last Temptation of Christ
Black thorns against a blood red background.
Theatrical release poster
Directed byMartin Scorsese
Screenplay byPaul Schrader
Based onThe Last Temptation of Christ
by Nikos Kazantzakis
Produced byBarbara De Fina
CinematographyMichael Ballhaus
Edited byThelma Schoonmaker
Music byPeter Gabriel
Distributed by
  • Universal Pictures (United States)
  • Cineplex Odeon Films (Canada)[3]
Release date
  • August 12, 1988 (1988-08-12) (United States)
Running time
163 minutes[4]
  • Canada
  • United States[5]
Budget$7 million[6]
Box office$33.8 million

The Last Temptation of Christ is a 1988 epic religious drama film directed by Martin Scorsese. Written by Paul Schrader with uncredited rewrites from Scorsese and Jay Cocks, it is an adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis' controversial 1955 novel of the same name. The film, starring Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Barbara Hershey, Andre Gregory, Harry Dean Stanton and David Bowie, was shot entirely in Morocco.

The film depicts the life of Jesus Christ and his struggle with various forms of temptation including fear, doubt, depression, reluctance, and lust. The book and the film depict Christ being tempted by imagining himself engaged in sexual activities, which caused outrage from certain Christian groups, claiming the work as blasphemy. It includes a disclaimer stating: "This film is not based on the Gospels, but upon the fictional exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict."

The Last Temptation of Christ received positive reviews from critics and some religious leaders, and Scorsese received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Director. Hershey's performance as Mary Magdalene earned her a nomination for the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress. Peter Gabriel's music score also received acclaim, including a nomination for the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score. Dafoe's performance as Jesus was praised, with some thinking he should have been nominated for Best Actor. In stark contrast, Keitel's performance received a nomination for Worst Supporting Actor at the Golden Raspberry Awards.


Jesus of Nazareth, a carpenter in Roman-occupied Judea, is torn between his own desires and his knowledge of God's plan for him. His friend Judas Iscariot is sent to kill him for collaborating with the Romans to crucify Jewish rebels, but suspects that Jesus is the Messiah and asks him to lead a war of liberation against the Romans. While Jesus assures him that his message is one of love for mankind, Judas warns him not to harm the rebellion.

Jesus starts preaching after saving prostitute Mary Magdalene from a stoning and being baptized by John the Baptist. He acquires disciples, some who want freedom from the Romans while Jesus maintains people should tend to matters of the spirit. Jesus goes into the desert to test his connection to God, where he resists temptation by Satan. Returning from the desert, Jesus is nursed back to health by Martha and Mary of Bethany, who encourage him to marry and have children.

After performing miracles, including raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus's ministry reaches Jerusalem, where he and his followers chase out money changers from the temple. He begins bleeding from his hands, which he recognizes as a sign that he must die on the cross to bring salvation to mankind and instructs Judas to give him to the Romans. Jesus convenes his disciples for a Passover seder, whereupon Judas leads a contingent of soldiers to arrest Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. Although acknowledging his virtues and their significance, Pontius Pilate tells Jesus that he must be put to death as he represents a threat to the Roman Empire; he is subsequently beaten, flogged, mocked and taken to be crucified.

While on the cross, a young girl who claims to be Jesus's guardian angel tells him that, while he is the Son of God, he is not the Messiah and that God is pleased with him and wants him to be happy. She brings him down off the cross and, invisible to others, takes him to Mary Magdalene, whom he marries. They live a happy life, but when she abruptly dies, Jesus is consoled by his angel and goes on to start a family with Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus. As an older man, Jesus encounters the apostle Paul preaching about the Messiah and tries to tell him that he is the man about whom Paul has been preaching. Paul repudiates him, saying that even if Jesus had not died on the cross, his message was the truth, and nothing would stop him from proclaiming that. Jesus debates him, stating that salvation cannot be founded on lies.

Near the end of his life, with Jerusalem in the throes of rebellion, an elderly dying Jesus calls his former disciples to his bed. When Judas comes he reveals Jesus's guardian angel is actually Satan, who tricked him into believing he did not have to give himself up to save the world. Crawling back through the burning city, Jesus reaches the site of his crucifixion and begs God to let him fulfill his purpose, stating: "I want to be the Messiah!" Jesus then finds himself once more on the cross, having overcome the "last temptation" of escaping death, being married and raising a family, and the ensuing disaster that would have consequently encompassed mankind. Jesus cries out: "It is accomplished!", and dies.



Scorsese had wanted to make a film version of Jesus' life since childhood. While he was directing Barbara Hershey in the 1972 film Boxcar Bertha, she gave him a copy of the Kazantzakis novel. Scorsese optioned the book in the late 1970s, and he gave it to Paul Schrader to adapt. The Last Temptation of Christ was originally to be Scorsese's follow-up to The King of Comedy; production was slated to begin in 1983 for Paramount, with a budget of about $14 million and shot on location in Israel. The original cast included Aidan Quinn as Jesus, Sting as Pontius Pilate, Ray Davies as Judas Iscariot[7] and Vanity as Mary Magdalene. Management at Paramount and its then parent company, Gulf+Western, grew uneasy due to the ballooning budget for the picture and protest letters received from religious groups. The project went into turnaround, and was finally canceled in December 1983. Scorsese went on to make After Hours instead.

In 1986, Universal Studios became interested in the project. Scorsese offered to shoot the film in 58 days for $7 million,[6] and Universal eventually greenlighted the production, as Scorsese agreed to direct a more mainstream film for the studio in the future (which eventually resulted in Cape Fear).[8] Critic and screenwriter Jay Cocks worked with Scorsese to revise Schrader's script. Aidan Quinn passed on the role of Jesus, and Scorsese recast Willem Dafoe in the part. Sting also passed on the role of Pilate, with the role being recast with David Bowie. Principal photography began in October 1987. The location shoot in Morocco (a first for Scorsese) was difficult, and the difficulties were compounded by the hurried schedule. "We worked in a state of emergency," Scorsese recalled. Scenes had to be improvised and worked out on the set with little deliberation, leading Scorsese to develop a minimalist aesthetic for the film. Shooting wrapped by December 25, 1987.


The film's musical soundtrack, composed by Peter Gabriel, received a Golden Globe Award nomination for Best Original Score - Motion Picture in 1988 and was released on CD with the title Passion, which won a Grammy in 1990 for Best New Age Album. The film's score itself helped to popularize world music. Gabriel subsequently compiled an album called Passion – Sources, including additional material by various musicians that inspired him in composing the soundtrack, or which he sampled for the soundtrack. The original scores brought together many international artists including Pakistani musician and vocalist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Egyptian kanun player Abdul Aziz, Turkish ney flute player Kudsi Ergüner, Armenian duduk players Antranik Askarian and Vatche Housepian.


The film opened on August 12, 1988.[9] The film was later screened as a part of the Venice International Film Festival on September 7, 1988.[10] In response to the film's acceptance as a part of the festival's lineup, director Franco Zeffirelli removed his film Young Toscanini from the program.[11]

Although The Last Temptation of Christ was released on VHS and Laserdisc, many video rental stores, including the then-dominant Blockbuster Video, declined to carry it for rental, as a result of the film's controversial reception.[12] In 1997, the Criterion Collection issued a special edition of The Last Temptation of Christ on Laserdisc, which Criterion re-issued on DVD in 2000 and on Blu-ray disc in Region A in March 2012 and Region B in April 2019.[13]


Box office[edit]

The Last Temptation of Christ opened in 123 theaters on August 12, 1988, in the United States and Canada, and grossed $401,211 in its opening weekend. At the end of its run, it had grossed $8,373,585 in the United States and Canada.[14] Internationally, it grossed $25.4 million for a worldwide total of $33.8 million.[15]

Critical response[edit]

The review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reports that 82% of 103 film critics have given the film a positive review, with an average rating of 7.6/10. The consensus states: "Contrary to accusations of irreverence, The Last Temptation of Christ's biggest sins are actually languid pacing and some tinny dialogue — but Martin Scorsese's passion for the subject shines through in an oft-transcendent rumination on faith."[16] Metacritic, which assigns a weighted average score out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, gives the film a score of 80 based on 18 reviews, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[17]

In a four-out-of-four star review for the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert, who later included the film in his list of "Great Movies",[18] wrote that Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader "paid Christ the compliment of taking him and his message seriously, and they have made a film that does not turn him into a garish, emasculated image from a religious postcard. Here he is flesh and blood, struggling, questioning, asking himself and his father which is the right way, and finally, after great suffering, earning the right to say, on the cross, 'It is accomplished.'"[19] Gene Siskel from the Chicago Tribune said: "Dafoe manages to draw us into the mystery, anguish and joy of the holy life. This is anything but another one of those boring biblical costume epics. There is genuine challenge and hope in this movie."[17]

A review associated with Catholic News Service asserts that The Last Temptation of Christ "fails because of artistic inadequacy rather than anti-religious bias."[20] Halliwell's Film Guide awarded it one star from a possible four, describing it as "beautifully shot and strikingly acted, but wordy and too long".[21] Alan Jones awarded it four stars out of five for Radio Times, calling it "a challenging essay on the life of Jesus" and "neither blasphemous nor offensive", though he felt it was "slightly too long, and Scorsese does pull some punches in deference to the subject matter", but described these as "minor criticisms" and concluded that it was a "sincere work".[22]


Terrorist attack[edit]

On October 22, 1988, an Integralist Catholic group set fire to the Saint Michel cinema in Paris while it was showing the film. Shortly after midnight, an incendiary device ignited under a seat in the less supervised underground room, where a different film was being shown. The incendiary device consisted of a charge of potassium chlorate, triggered by a vial containing sulphuric acid.[23] The attack injured thirteen people, four of whom were severely burned, and severely damaged the cinema.

Death threats[edit]

In Roger Ebert's book Scorsese by Ebert, the critic wrote of the reaction to The Last Temptation of Christ, "...Scorsese was targeted by death threats and the jeremiads of TV evangelists".[24] The threats were significant enough that Scorsese had to use bodyguards during public appearances for a few years.[citation needed]


Because of the film's departures from the gospel narratives—and especially a brief scene wherein Jesus and Mary Magdalene consummate their marriage—several Christian 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' then parent company MCA.[25] One of the protestors dressed up as MCA's Chairman Lew Wasserman and pretended to drive nails through Jesus' hands into a wooden cross.[9] Evangelist Bill Bright offered to buy the film's negative from Universal in order to destroy it.[25][26] The protests were effective in convincing several theater chains not to screen the film.[25] One of those chains, General Cinemas, later apologized to Scorsese for doing so.[9]

Censorship and bans[edit]

Mother Angelica, a Catholic nun and founder of Eternal Word Television Network, described Last Temptation as "the most blasphemous ridicule of the Eucharist that's ever been perpetrated in this world" and "a holocaust movie that has the power to destroy souls eternally."[27][28] In some countries, including Greece, South Africa, Turkey, Mexico, Chile, and Argentina, the film was banned or censored for several years. As of February 2024, the film continued to be banned in the Philippines and Singapore.[29] In February 2020, Netflix revealed the film to be one of the five titles that have been removed from the Singapore version of Netflix at the demand of the Singapore government's Infocomm Media Development Authority.[30][31]

Awards and nominations[edit]

Award Category Nominee(s) Result
Academy Awards Best Director Martin Scorsese Nominated
Golden Globe Awards Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture Barbara Hershey Nominated
Best Original Score – Motion Picture Peter Gabriel Nominated
Golden Raspberry Awards Worst Supporting Actor Harvey Keitel Nominated
Grammy Awards Best Album of Original Instrumental Background Score Written for a Motion Picture or Television Peter Gabriel Nominated
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards Best Director Martin Scorsese Runner-up
MTV Movie Awards Mexico Best Miracle in a Movie Willem Dafoe for "The wine at Caná (Jesus turns water into wine at a wedding)" Nominated
National Board of Review Awards Top Ten Films 5th Place
Venice International Film Festival Filmcritica "Bastone Bianco" Award Martin Scorsese Won[a]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Tied with Once More.


  1. ^ a b "The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)". British Film Institute. Archived from the original on August 11, 2016.
  2. ^ "THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988)". American Film Institute. Archived from the original on April 13, 2023. Retrieved April 13, 2023.
  3. ^ Lindlof, Thomas R. (2010). Hollywood Under Siege: Martin Scorsese, the Religious Right, and the Culture Wars. University Press of Kentucky. p. 163. ISBN 978-0-8131-3862-6.
  4. ^ "The Last Temptation of Christ (18)". British Board of Film Classification. September 2, 1988. Archived from the original on February 9, 2015. Retrieved October 23, 2014.
  5. ^ "Last Temptation of Christ, The (1988) - Overview - TCM.com". Archived from the original on May 6, 2021. Retrieved April 16, 2017.
  6. ^ a b "Last Temptation Turns Twenty-Five". Christianity Today. August 7, 2013. Archived from the original on February 27, 2017. Retrieved October 23, 2014.
  7. ^ Revealed in an interview with Mark Lawson on Front Row, BBC Radio 4, September 23, 2008.
  8. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). www.carseywolf.ucsb.edu. Archived from the original (PDF) on October 3, 2021. Retrieved January 12, 2022.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  9. ^ a b c Kelly, M. (1991). Martin Scorsese: A Journey. New York, Thunder's Mouth Press.
  10. ^ "Venice Festival Screens Scorsese's 'Last Temptation'". Los Angeles Times. September 9, 1988. Archived from the original on April 7, 2014. Retrieved December 9, 2012.
  11. ^ "Zeffirelli Protests 'Temptation of Christ'". The New York Times. August 3, 1988. Archived from the original on May 6, 2021. Retrieved December 9, 2012.
  12. ^ Martin Scorsese et al. (1997). The Last Temptation of Christ [audio commentary] (Laserdisc/DVD/Blu-ray Disc). New York: The Criterion Collection.
  13. ^ Katz, Josh (December 15, 2011). "Criterion Blu-ray in March: Scorsese, Kalatozov, Hegedus & Pennebaker, Baker, Lean (Updated)". Blu-ray.com. Archived from the original on August 18, 2016. Retrieved February 17, 2013.
  14. ^ "The Last Temptation of Christ". Box Office Mojo. IMDb. Retrieved April 10, 2021.
  15. ^ "UIP's $25M-Plus Club". Variety. September 11, 1995. p. 92.
  16. ^ "The Last Temptation of Christ". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved December 8, 2022.
  17. ^ a b "The Last Temptation of Christ". Metacritic. Fandom, Inc. Retrieved April 10, 2021.
  18. ^ Great Movies Archived October 13, 2012, at the Wayback Machine Roger Ebert
  19. ^ Ebert, Roger (January 7, 1998). "The Last Temptation of Christ". Chicago Sun-Times. Archived from the original on October 13, 2012. Retrieved December 11, 2012.
  20. ^ "USCCB - (Film and Broadcasting) - Last Temptation of Christ, the". Archived from the original on March 23, 2021.
  21. ^ Halliwell, Leslie (1997). Halliwell's Film and Video Guide (paperback) (13 ed.). HarperCollins. p. 442. ISBN 978-0-00-638868-5.
  22. ^ Jones, Alan. "The Last Temptation of Christ". Radio Times. Archived from the original on May 6, 2021. Retrieved March 6, 2021.
  23. ^ Caviglioli, François (April 15, 1990). "Le bûcher de Saint-Michel" (PDF). Le Nouvel Observateur. p. 110. Archived (PDF) from the original on December 11, 2015. Retrieved November 5, 2015.
  24. ^ Ebert, Roger (May 15, 2009). Scorsese by Ebert. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226182049. Archived from the original on May 6, 2021. Retrieved October 15, 2020.
  25. ^ a b c WGBH. "Culture Shock Flashpoints: Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ". Public Broadcasting Systems. Archived from the original on August 30, 2010. Retrieved April 20, 2012.
  26. ^ EASTON, NINA J. (July 22, 1988). "Studio Fires Back in Defense of 'Temptation'". Archived from the original on October 6, 2014. Retrieved April 16, 2017 – via LA Times.
  27. ^ Kishi, Russell. "Mother Teresa joins protest of movie." The Bryan Times. Ford M. Cullis, August 12, 1988. Web. July 18, 2016.
  28. ^ "Mother Angelica condemned Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ"". The Signal. August 10, 1988. p. 10. Archived from the original on October 9, 2023. Retrieved September 2, 2023.
  29. ^ Certification page Archived May 6, 2021, at the Wayback Machine at the Internet Movie Database
  30. ^ Sakar, Samit (February 7, 2020). "Netflix reveals the 9 times it has complied with government censorship". Polygon. Archived from the original on July 1, 2020. Retrieved June 27, 2020.
  31. ^ "Netflix 2019 Environmental Social Governance report" (PDF). February 2020. Archived (PDF) from the original on May 8, 2021. Retrieved June 27, 2020. Below are the titles we've removed to date, as of February 2020 — just nine in total since we launched. ... In 2019, we received a written demand from the Singapore Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) to remove The Last Temptation of Christ from the service in Singapore only.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]