The Last Temptation of Christ (film)

The Last Temptation of Christ is a 1988 epic drama film directed by Martin Scorsese. Written by Paul Schrader with uncredited rewrites from Scorsese and Jay Cocks, the film 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 Last Temptation of Christ
Theatrical release poster
Directed byMartin Scorsese
Produced byBarbara De Fina
Screenplay byPaul Schrader
Based onThe Last Temptation of Christ
by Nikos Kazantzakis
Music byPeter Gabriel
CinematographyMichael Ballhaus
Edited byThelma Schoonmaker
Distributed by
Release date
  • August 12, 1988 (1988-08-12) (United States)
Running time
163 minutes[2]
United States[3]
Budget$7 million[4]
Box office$8.9 million[5]

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. This 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 film includes a disclaimer stating "This film is not based on the Gospels, but upon the fictional exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict."[6]

Like the novel it was based on, the film generated controversy at the time of its release from Christian religious groups, who took issue with its departures from the gospel narratives contained in it. Although a box office failure, it received positive reviews from critics and some religious leaders upon its release 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.


Jesus of Nazareth is a carpenter in Roman-occupied Judea, torn between his own desires and his knowledge that God has a plan for him. His conflict results in self-loathing, and he collaborates with the Romans to crucify Jewish rebels.

Judas Iscariot, a friend of Jesus' originally sent to kill him for collaboration, instead suspects that Jesus is the Messiah and asks him to lead a liberation war against the Romans. Jesus replies that his message is love of mankind; whereupon Judas joins Jesus in his ministry, but threatens to kill him if he strays from the purpose of rebellion. Jesus also has an undisclosed prior relationship with Mary Magdalene, a Jewish prostitute.

After saving Mary Magdalene from a mob gathered to stone her for prostitution and working on the sabbath, Jesus starts preaching. He acquires disciples, but remains uncertain of his role. He visits John the Baptist, who baptizes him, and the two discuss theology and politics. John's primary goal is to gain freedom from the Romans, while Jesus maintains people should tend to matters of the spirit. Jesus then goes into the desert to test God's connection to himself, where he is tempted by Satan, but resists and envisions himself with an axe, being instructed by John the Baptist in answer to Jesus's dilemma of whether to choose the path of love (symbolized by the heart) or the path of violence (represented by the axe). Jesus returns from the desert to the home of Martha and Mary of Bethany, who restore him to health and attempt to persuade him that the way to please God is to have a home, a marriage, and children. Jesus then appears to his waiting disciples to tear out his own heart and invites them to follow him. With newfound confidence he performs various miracles and raises Lazarus from the dead.

Eventually his ministry reaches Jerusalem, where Jesus performs the Cleansing of the Temple and leads a small army to capture the temple by force, but halts on the steps to await a sign from God. He begins bleeding from his hands, which he recognizes as a sign that he must die on the cross to bring salvation to mankind. Confiding in Judas, he persuades the latter to give him to the Romans, despite Judas's inclination otherwise. Jesus convenes his disciples for Passover seder, whereupon Judas leads a contingent of soldiers to arrest Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. Jesus turns himself over. Pontius Pilate confronts Jesus and tells him that he must be put to death because he represents a threat to the Roman Empire. Jesus is flogged, a crown of thorns is placed on his head and finally he is crucified.

While on the cross, Jesus converses with a young girl who claims to be his guardian angel. She tells him that although 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 are soon expecting a child and living an idyllic life; but she abruptly dies, and Jesus is consoled by his angel; next he takes Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, for his wives. He starts a family with them, having many children, and lives his life in peace.

Many years later, Jesus encounters the apostle Paul preaching about the Messiah, telling stories of Jesus's resurrection and ascension to heaven. Jesus tries to tell Paul that he is the man about whom Paul has been preaching, and argues that salvation cannot be founded on lies. But Paul is unmoved, saying that even if his message is not the truth, it is what the world needs to hear, and nothing will stop him from proclaiming it.

Near the end of his life, an elderly Jesus calls his former disciples to his bed. Peter, Nathaniel, and a scarred John visit their master as Jerusalem is in the throes of the Jewish Rebellion against the Romans. Judas comes last and reveals that the youthful angel who released Jesus from the crucifixion is in fact Satan. Crawling back through the burning city of Jerusalem, Jesus reaches the site of his crucifixion and begs God to let him fulfill his purpose and to "let him be God's son."

Then Jesus finds himself on the cross once more, having overcome the "last temptation" of escaping death, being married and raising a family, and the ensuing disaster that would have consequently encompassed mankind. Naked and bloody, Jesus cries out in intense emotion as he dies, "It is accomplished!", in realization that he has saved the soul of man. The screen flickers to white and the sound of triumphant bells tolling.[4]



Scorsese had wanted to make a film version of Jesus' life since childhood. While directing Barbara Hershey in the 1972 film Boxcar Bertha, she gave him a copy of the Kazantzakis novel. Scorsese optioned the novel 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,[4] and Universal greenlit the production. 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 film opened on August 12, 1988.[8] The film was later screened as a part of the Venice International Film Festival on September 7, 1988.[9] In response to the film's acceptance as a part of the film festival's lineup, director Franco Zeffirelli removed his film Young Toscanini from the program.[10]

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.[11] 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.[12]


Box office

The Last Temptation of Christ opened in 123 theaters on August 12, 1988, and grossed $401,211 in its opening weekend. The movie was not a financial success. At the end of its run, it had grossed only $8,373,585 domestically (it cost over $7,000,000 to film) and $487,867 in Mexico for a worldwide total of $8,861,452.[5]

Critical response

The film has been positively supported by film critics and some religious leaders. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 80% of 55 film critics have given the film a positive review, with a rating average of 7.4/10. The consensus states, "The Last Temptation of Christ is a surprisingly straight and passionate affair, one that also seeks to redeem Scorsese's '80s career."[13] 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.[14]

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",[15] 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.'"[16] 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."[14]

Writers at NNDB gave a positive review, writing "Paul Schrader's screenplay and Willem Dafoe's performance made perhaps the most honestly Christ-like portrayal of Jesus ever filmed."[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."[18]

Controversy at Saint Michel cinema

On October 22, 1988, an integrist Catholic group set fire to the Saint Michel cinema in Paris while it was showing the film. A little 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.[19] The attack injured thirteen people, four of whom were severely burned, and severely damaged the cinema.

General controversy

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 child—experiencing a dream or alternate 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 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.[20] One of the protestors dressed up as MCA's Chairman Lew Wasserman and pretended to drive nails through Jesus' hands into a wooden cross.[8] Evangelist Bill Bright offered to buy the film's negative from Universal in order to destroy it.[20][21] The protests were effective in convincing several theater chains not to screen the film.[20] One of those chains, General Cinemas, later apologized to Scorsese for doing so.[8]

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."[22] In some countries, including Greece, Turkey, Mexico, Chile, and Argentina, the film was banned or censored for several years. As of July 2010, the film continues to be banned in Chile, the Philippines and Singapore.[23]


Award Category Subject Result
Academy Award Best Director Martin Scorsese Nominated
Golden Globe Awards Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture Barbara Hershey Nominated
Best Original Score Peter Gabriel Nominated
Golden Raspberry Award Worst Supporting Actor Harvey Keitel Nominated
Grammy Award Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media Peter Gabriel Nominated
LAFCA Award Best Director Martin Scorsese 2nd place


  1. 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.
  2. "The Last Temptation of Christ (18)". British Board of Film Classification. September 2, 1988. Retrieved October 23, 2014.
  3. "Last Temptation of Christ, The (1988) - Overview -". Retrieved April 16, 2017.
  4. "Last Temptation Turns Twenty-Five". Christianity Today. August 7, 2013. Retrieved October 23, 2014.
  5. "The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)". Box Office Mojo. Internet Movie Database. Retrieved October 21, 2014.
  6. stephen (July 26, 2012). "A Theological Critique of Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ". Logos & Ekklesia. Retrieved July 11, 2019.
  7. Revealed in an interview with Mark Lawson on Front Row, BBC Radio 4, September 23, 2008.
  8. Kelly, M. (1991). Martin Scorsese: A Journey. New York, Thunder's Mouth Press.
  9. "Venice Festival Screens Scorsese's 'Last Temptation'". Los Angeles Times. September 9, 1988. Retrieved December 9, 2012.
  10. "Zeffirelli Protests 'Temptation of Christ'". The New York Times. August 3, 1988. Retrieved December 9, 2012.
  11. Martin Scorsese et al. (1997). The Last Temptation of Christ [audio commentary] (Laserdisc/DVD/Blu-ray Disc). New York: The Criterion Collection.
  12. Katz, Josh (December 15, 2011). "Criterion Blu-ray in March: Scorsese, Kalatozov, Hegedus & Pennebaker, Baker, Lean (Updated)". Retrieved February 17, 2013.
  13. "The Last Temptation of Christ". Rotten Tomatoes. Flixster. Retrieved December 8, 2017.
  14. "The Last Temptation of Christ". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved December 10, 2012.
  15. Great Movies Roger Ebert
  16. Ebert, Roger (January 7, 1998). "The Last Temptation of Christ". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved December 11, 2012.
  17. Martin Scorsese Biography
  18. "USCCB - (Film and Broadcasting) - Last Temptation of Christ, The". Retrieved April 16, 2017.
  19. Caviglioli, François (April 15, 1990). "Le bûcher de Saint-Michel" (PDF). Le Nouvel Observateur. p. 110.
  20. WGBH. "Culture Shock Flashpoints: Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ". Public Broadcasting Systems. Retrieved April 20, 2012.
  21. EASTON, NINA J. (July 22, 1988). "Studio Fires Back in Defense of 'Temptation'". Retrieved April 16, 2017 via LA Times.
  22. Kishi, Russell. "Mother Teresa joins protest of movie." The Bryan Times. Ford M. Cullis, August 12, 1988. Web. July 18, 2016.
  23. Certification page at the Internet Movie Database
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