Easily the most controversial film about Jesus is Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. Based on the novel of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis, Jesus is initially portrayed as a someone racked with guilt and terrified of God’s call. Eventually he begins his ministry, gathering disciples en route to Jerusalem. Upon arrival he persuades Judas to betray him and thus is arrested and crucified.
But unlike other stories about Jesus’ death, this one initially appears to have a happy ending. Jesus’ guardian angel materialises and tells him that there is no need for him to carry on: he can come down from the cross, marry Mary Magdalene and live a normal life instead.
The unconventional ending to the film, which included Jesus and Mary making love as a married couple, caused uproar, protests and even death threats, yet it was arguably far less offensive than other parts of the film. When it eventually turns out that these events are fantasy rather than reality, it also becomes clear that the strongest element of Jesus’ final temptation is simply his desire for normality. By contrast, the scenes where Jesus watches Magdalene prostitute herself, or where he rips out his heart from his chest, were barely mentioned by the protesters, perhaps because many of them had not even seen the film.
Overall, Scorsese’s take on Jesus is a mixture of the good, the bad, and the downright weird. Among scenes which are bizarre and even a little indulgent on occasion, lie a handful of breathtaking moments that still remain without equal. Jesus’ intervention in the stoning of an adulteress, the Sermon on the Plain, the raising of Lazarus and, yes, even the film’s final shot, are all bursting with the kind of spontaneity and originality which reinvigorates these previously over-familiar stories.
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It’s “the greatest story ever told”, according to one famous movie title, and among these films is the alleged most watched film of all time. In these pages we review some of the most significant Jesus movies made over the past 50 years.
Written by Matt Page
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