1988 / Best Director

Film #554: The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

Martin Scorsese is a director whose work we have already covered in some depth during the course of this blog as he has helmed his fair share of Best Picture contenders. In fact there was only one film for which Scorsese received a Best Director nod which didn’t receive a nomination for Best Picture and that was the controversial The Last Temptation of Christ.

The Last Temptation of Christ was a passion project for Scorsese who wanted to make a film about the life of Jesus Christ and came across the book of the same name written by Nikos Kazantzakis. Optioning the book in the late 1970s, it took almost ten years for the film to come to the screen as fears over complaints about the movie saw production being shut down in 1983. The film finally came to life in 1988 with production being so hurried that a lot of the scenes had to be improvised on the fly which in my opinion helped the overall tone of the movie. As the title suggests the film deals with the many temptations of Christ including the famous period where he went into the desert for forty days. As you would expect for a film about Jesus a lot of it features the stories and miracles we already know including the turning of water into wine and the raising of Lazarus. However the most memorable sequence comes in the final third of the film as Jesus is talked down off the cross by a little girl who is said to be his guardian angel. As his life is spared, Jesus goes on to live and grow to be an old man however he later finds out that the gift of life was his final temptation and he eventually goes on to be crucified after all .Whether this entire sequence was a dream or not was never explained but as you would expect it did raise the ire of a number of Christian groups. I personally felt it worked as a piece of entertainment and was presented in a rather frank manner like a lot of the rest of this film was.

A lot of the times writing about these Best Director movies I can’t understand why the film got nominated for that award and not Best Picture. But in the case of The Last Temptation of Christ it totally makes sense as the film is directed incredibly but doesn’t have any of the crowd-pleasing moments that most Best Picture nominees contain. Furthermore at times it’s hard to really to connect to the film as it has long periods of silence where Willem Dafoe’s Jesus just contemplates his place in the world. But I personally thought that Scorsese put together a brilliant version of the story of Christ albeit one with a twisty ending that goes on a bit too long. I felt the way he presented the scenes in which God tested Jesus in the desert were particularly strong as were the representations of Satan throughout the movie. The entire film was also enhanced by the score by Peter Gabriel which was utterly haunting in places and also heightened the dramatic elements in others. Of the cast, I found Willem Dafoe to be absolutely brilliant as Jesus as he really brought across the sense of anguish that was needed for this particular version of the story of Christ. Barbara Hershey, who originally gave Scorsese the novel on which the film is based, puts in a great turn as Mary Magdalene whilst David Bowie gives a scene-stealing cameo as Pontius Pilate. But this is really Scorsese’s show and he puts together a rather brutal but ultimately comprehensive retelling of the story of Jesus which lingers in the mind long after the credits have rolled.

Although, as I said before, I’m not sure if the film deserved a place in the Best Picture category and I could say the same for 1988’s other Best Director piece A Fish Called Wanda. If the films nominated for Best Director would replace those given the nod for Best Picture than The Accidental Tourist and Dangerous Liaisons would both lose their places. Whilst I have no problem with the twee and annoying Accidental Tourist falling out of the Best Picture race I feel that Dangerous Liaisons brought a sense of style that was lacking elsewhere in the 1988 field. So if I were to make my own list of five then I would probably replace The Accidental Tourist with A Fish Called Wanda as the latter film had a lot more to give. That’s also because I thought The Last Temptation of Christ just didn’t feel like a Best Picture film although at the same time Scorsese’s nomination was entirely justified as you could tell that this was a real passion project for the director.

Next time we flash back five years for our next English language feature directed by a man who received another Best Director nod in 1988 alongside Scorsese.

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