BANNED MEDIA MONTH #1: The Last Temptation of Christ, by Martin Scorsese (1988)

Type of Media: Film

At this point it is difficult to be ignorant of the consequences of offending a religious group. The two-year anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo shooting, in which militant Muslim gunmen killed twelve people in a satirical newspaper's offices for making jokes about the Prophet Muhammad, is less than a week away. That attack is the most prominent and extreme recent example of just how seriously people can take depictions of the divine in media. 

Thankfully no one was killed when The Last Temptation of Christ was released (though 13 were injured when a screening of the film was firebombed by fundamentalist Christians), but it did spark outrage from individuals, religious groups, and even governments. Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Greece, and Turkey banned the film outright for years, and in Singapore and the Philippines it's still illegal to distribute or own a copy of it. Christians picketed the theaters that showed it, and Evangelist Bill Bright even offered to buy the film's negative from Universal so he could destroy it. To some, this was a movie that could destroy the souls of those who watched it.

So what was the big deal? Well, in The Last Temptation Scorsese tells the story of Jesus (played by Willem Dafoe) by focusing on Jesus' humanity instead of his divinity. Jesus laughs, he gets angry, he wrestles with what God wants him to do or if he's even the messiah in the first place, and much of his suffering is emotional rather than physical. The story takes very extreme liberties with its source material, most notably reframing Judas' betrayal as something that Christ specifically asked him to do. By far the biggest source of controversy, though, is toward the end of the film, where Jesus gets off the cross and starts a family with Mary Magdalene in a Satan-fueled dream sequence, revealing the titular Last Temptation to be his yearning for a domestic family life.

Critics of the film call it blasphemous. And they're right, it is incredibly blasphemous. Jesus and his apostles do things in The Last Temptation that are pretty much the opposite of what they do in scripture. However, that doesn't stop it from being a well-made, thought-provoking film. Willem Dafoe's portrayal of Jesus isn't accurate to the Jesus portrayed in the Bible, but it does make you sympathize with the great burden Christ had to bear. When he raises Lazarus from the dead and looks as surprised as everyone else in the crowd at his miracle, it helps you grasp the frightening mystery of God. A Jesus who allows himself to be captured and crucified knowing full well he's the son of God doesn't make for a character that audiences can invest themselves in. His doubts about his divinity are what make his sacrifices courageous.

If you have a strong Christian conviction and it would disgust you to see Jesus portrayed as more down-to-earth compared to how he acts in the Bible, maybe avoid this movie. For everyone else, this is a great Scorsese film and a fairly radical interpretation of the Christ story (complete with a fun synth-tinged soundtrack by Peter Gabriel). If that piques your interest, set aside the 2.5 hours it takes to watch.