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For Christ's Sake: Jesus Christ Superstar and The Last Temptation of Christ

  Maybe you can blame Pier Paolo Pasolini for the rise in controversial Biblical films that emerged from the nineteen-seventies onwards. He had written and directed The Gospel According to Matthew in 1964, which was regarded as unexpected at best, deplorable at worst, since Pasolini was not shy about promoting his anti-establishment Marxist views, those which did not appear to go along with the tenets of Christianity. Critic Pauline Kael famously said she could not wait till this Christ was crucified, and it remains a divisive film to this day, with the faithful far preferring The Greatest Story Ever Told, the Hollywood version, from the following year.

But Pasolini had set something in motion, a reassessing of the Gospels now the peace and love generation you would assume Christ would approve of were at loggerheads with the governments, and even its churches. Students and hippies who wore peace signs and closed in on their spiritual side through drugs were holding a mirror up to society and finding it lacking. Into this arrived the rock musicals like Hair, Godspell and in particular Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Jesus Christ Superstar, first staged in 1971, which was embraced by a certain type of youthful Christian as much as the more atheist music lover thanks to its emphasis on catchy tunes and rock posturing.

It's a musical that continues to do well in the theatre, but there was a film adaptation from 1973 which is doubtless the most seen version, though it too seemed to crystallise the issues that many had with Webber and Rice's take on the New Testament. It took the form of a group of none more seventies students arriving by bus in the Holy Land and putting on the show right there amidst the baking landscape and ruined temples, rather than a recreation of what existence was like back in Biblical times, which may have gone down worse with the sternest adherents, but it did not change the fact that there were parts of the source replicated to some theological unease.

For a start, there were no miracles in this telling, it was shorn of anything supernatural as relating the tale of Christ's last week from Palm Sunday to the Crucifixion as if it had been the experience of an ordinary man raised to the status of the Messiah by those around him, both lovers and haters, and in so doing maybe - just maybe - actually making his ascension to Heaven happen. Except, of course, we didn't see it: the film ends as Jesus (Ted Neeley) is nailed to the cross, forgives everyone for treating him so bad, and expires, so that we do not know if his faith worked and he was the real Son of God, or whether he was "just" a man whose teachings spread across the globe.

Well, I say there were no miracles, there is one character who is resurrected: Judas Iscariot (Carl Anderson), the man who betrayed Christ to the Pharisees and the Romans. Normally the bad guy in the Gospel tale, here he was given a robust psychological workout to see why he did what he did, something you could argue was a very twentieth century approach to who most of history had placed in the centre of Hell. Could it be that Judas was misunderstood? That he believed he was doing the right thing, and that he loved Jesus enough to trust him to spread the good word? A pity it didn't unfold as benevolently for Judas, then.

The seventies would continue to see the Christ story pop up again and again: Godspell was filmed in 1973, country singer Johnny Cash delivered his own tribute to his beliefs with Gospel Road in 1973, Zalman King starred as "Yeshua" in the Christian conspiracy effort The Passover Plot in 1976, but the two major examples turned up at the end of the decade, showing the extremes the religious yarn could elicit. On television, Robert Powell was Jesus in the highly respectful Jesus of Nazareth in 1978, but maybe more defining than that was the comedy Monty Python's Life of Brian, where a Christ contemporary was blindly worshipped in the same way despite his protests.

If that was controversial, it was nothing compared to what happened in the eighties; the phase of Christ movies petered out that decade, certainly in comparison with the previous one, but Martin Scorsese was determined to make his Biblical epic in 1983, having been a fan of the genre as a child. His main influences were the Pasolini work and Nicholas Ray's 1961 King of Kings, both of which portrayed the Messiah as a rebel figure (Ray's film was snarkily labelled I Was a Teenage Jesus at the time), but it was the Nikos Kazantzakis book from the sixties that he was compelled to place on the screen, having snapped up the rights to it in the seventies at the height of the Jesus boost.

The film was The Last Temptation of Christ, completed in 1988, and despite Scorsese being one of the most pious filmmakers of his generation, a devout Catholic, he might as well have been the Antichrist for all the religious fundamentalists wanted to know. The problem was that, in among the plot's inventions to explore the philosophies of the Gospels, there was a grand finale that had Jesus (Willem Dafoe) leave the cross behind and opt for the life of a mortal man rather than the Son of God. It didn't matter to the rabidly righteous that he ultimately rejects this, his last temptation, and embraces his duty as the bringer of salvation to humanity, because they didn't want to see it anyway.

The reason? Sexy Jesus! During the temptation of the title, Christ is seen having sex with Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey), who in this telling adhered to the unfounded notion that the Biblical figure was a prostitute, something various Churches down the centuries had claimed for her. So to depict Jesus shagging a prostitute was even worse than the concept of him having any sexual thoughts at all to the fundamentalists, and the idea he was in love and wanted children went against all sorts of beliefs. The fact this scene was a shot of about thirty seconds in a film lasting nearly three hours did not matter: its inclusion was enough to wish hellfire and damnation on the picture.

There followed the largest number of people protesting a film - outside Universal Studios - ever recorded (supposedly around twenty-five thousand), death threats to Scorsese (which doesn't sound very Christian) and demands around the world that the negative should be destroyed. You might have thought this would have made a blockbuster out of those drawn in by the scandal, but in fact the reverse was true: the religious were up in arms, those not so couldn't care less, it looked boring to them, as who wanted to see a Christ movie in that day and age anyway? Therefore by not appealing to the Christians, the studio found it had nobody to market it to.

Compare with Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ in 2004, which was controversial too, but crucially the ultra-conservative Christians lapped it up as it appealed to their harsher than harsh view of their faith: come for the peace and love, stay for the torture porn. Thus a blockbuster that eluded Scorsese was Gibson's for the taking, no matter that the latter was not doing anything too different from what the former had tried, dressing up the basic story with extra add-ons to make it more relevant to what they saw as the modern audience's sensibilities. And they were equally silly in places too, though even Gibson drew the line at an exploding snake.

Or indeed the baffling decision to land a ginger perm on Judas (Harvey Keitel). The Last Temptation of Christ retains its controversy to this day but was latterly rediscovered by movie buffs for whom Scorsese's name remained a buzzword for classic cinema. Was it worth all the kerfuffle? Was it actually an unsung masterpiece? The answer was no to both, unfortunately for the same conclusion, it was too pious to be taken seriously as an attack on Christianity its enemies claimed for it, but then again when it diverged from the sacred text, it did not succeed in concocting anything as powerful or world-changing as the New Testament itself.

Scorsese and his screenwriter Paul Schrader were more like, hey, kids these days like miracles, let's give 'em plenty! Thus along with water into wine and the resurrection of Lazarus we also had Jesus taking his heart out to brandish under the disciples' noses. Only in its latter stages did the daring of its premise became apparent, by showing the consequences of Christ giving up his responsibilities, resulting in an early apocalypse. Had that been the starting point, this genuinely would have been provocative and worthy enough for all the controversy. Funnily enough, as Webber and Rice quickly became respectable, Jesus Christ Superstar was embraced by Christians as a cool gospel film, its controversy forgotten. It's doubtful that will ever occur with The Last Temptation of Christ.

[Criterion have released The Last Temptation of Christ on Blu-ray with these features:

Restored high-definition digital transfer, supervised and approved by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and editor Thelma Schoonmaker, with a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack by supervising sound editor Skip Lievsay
Audio commentary featuring director Martin Scorsese, actor Willem Dafoe, and writers Paul Schrader and Jay Cocks
Galleries of production stills, research materials, and costume designs
Location production footage shot by Scorsese
Interview with composer Peter Gabriel, with a stills gallery of traditional instruments used in the score
PLUS: An essay by film critic David Ehrenstein.]
Author: Graeme Clark.


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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018