To finish out the month of April, I thought it would be fitting to focus on the two most well-known yet controversial films about Jesus Christ. On one side, we have Martin Scorsese‘s The Last Temptation of Christ. Released by Universal Pictures in 1988, it quickly became one of the most debated films of all time. A film that has only just begun to be judged fairly in recent years, and made as only Scorsese could make it. On the other side, we have Mel Gibson‘s The Passion of the Christ. Like The Last Temptation of Christ, it was met with controversy when Newmarket Films acquired it for release in 2004, but the result was different. The Passion of the Christ became a box office blockbuster. Both films are beautifully made and were made for next to nothing, but a greater question remains: Which one is better? Reel Rumbles presents: The Last Temptation of Christ vs. The Passion of the Christ.
Both controversial films about Jesus have different sources. I think it’s best to start with The Passion of the Christ. It’s based on a combination of different sources, including four different versions of the Gospels, plus the writings of Anne Catherine Emmerich. Looking at all of the sources and all of the research that can be found, Emmerich’s writings seemed to be the main basis for what was written to begin with. The story of the last twelve hours of Jesus’s life is the main plot of the movie, and on that basis alone, it should be able to merit victory. But a story must succeed in execution as well as source. In that sense, the execution of the story is the film’s biggest weakness.
When I saw the film during its opening weekend in 2004, the first thing that struck me was how violent the film was, and that’s one of the film’s biggest problems. As much as I want to feel the same pain that Jesus is feeling throughout with each beating he takes, I can’t. Mainly because the violence overpowers the many positive virtues of the story. There’s also another issue with the film. I felt little to no real connection to Jesus himself. Despite a few details of his life, like the Last Supper and the actual betrayal of Judas, the film seems to say that Jesus’s life wasn’t as important as how he died. In another movie, this would be easy to buy, but in this movie it’s quite hard to take it seriously when the violence is already too strong to begin with.
With The Last Temptation of Christ, it is based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. It lets us know right up front at the start of the film that it is not based on the Gospels at all. What it is based on is the life of Jesus as if he lived during that time. It shows is a Jesus who is filled with fears, doubts, and temptations like any other man. It also shows us a Jesus who was not sure if he really was the Messiah or not. Still, the first hour and 45 minutes tell us the story as if it was based on the Gospels. It tells us the majority of the story with a Jesus who was willing to decide for himself what he really felt, even if he wasn’t exactly sure. The final hour of the film deals with his crucifixion and the last temptation, which is the possibility of living a normal life. But in the end, he fights it off with all of his might so he can finally say “It is accomplished!”.
This story is dealt with in such seriousness that it actually does the job of bringing the idea of God closer to the public. You feel for Jesus in a way that you never would think possible. What’s even more remarkable is that Kazantzakis’s intentions come out in a way that makes the movie a sight to behold. And unlike The Passion of the Christ, you learn a lot more about Jesus in less than three hours than Passion is able to tell you in just over two. Not to mention the titular last temptation itself is such a beautiful sequence that you will never forget once the film has finished.
Advantage: The Last Temptation of Christ
Both films have terrific scripts actually. Both are exceptionally well written and it shows through each page. Starting with The Passion, director Gibson and co-screenwriter Benedict Fitzgerald actually fashion a terrific script despite the weaknesses of the story. Since the final film is subtitled, it gives you a pretty good idea of what is on the page. As a result, it puts up an awesome fight, but at the same time, it gets bogged down somewhat by its story elements. There’s also only moderate character development at best (Jesus is the only character developed. Every other character is either barely there or seems to just be there to address plot points) and it seems that by the end, his death is the only thing that matters. Everything else (especially the last scene when Jesus rises again) is treated almost like an afterthought.
With The Last Temptation of Christ, screenwriter Paul Schrader brilliantly adapts Kazantzakis’s material to make for one hell of a movie, but the final film is only a shred of the final script. The actors did what they could to take the roles from the page and make them their own. Here, Schrader uses a voiceover to help us get into the mind of Jesus. As a result, especially in the opening hour, we get a psychological sense of what Jesus is going through, and we understand immediately that this is a challenged man, who will do anything to try to understand the feelings he is having. The rest of the film plays on this conceit, and it’s absolutely convincing.
Both films also have the scene where Jesus is nailed to the cross. It’s hard to judge them properly from a script perspective, but where Schrader’s script deals with it subtly, Gibson and Fitzgerald’s script decides to make it more dramatic. Between both, I prefer The Last Temptation of Christ‘s version of that scene. Why? Because it looks and feels more real. The close up on Willem Dafoe says it all when he is nailed to the cross. In The Passion of the Christ, I don’t get that feeling, partly because he has already taken enough pain that it feels like nothing to him, and the audience seems to agree.
More importantly though, Schrader creates a Jesus that we can all actually relate to. One that has the same fears, doubts, and temptations that we all have. The scene early on between Jesus and Mary Magdalene is a perfect example. Mary wants him to have sex with her, but he knows better. He might be tempted, but the feeling of what he is feeling is too strong to let him succumb to that. The same can be said for the crucifixion scene, where the little girl tries to tell him that he is not the Messiah. Although he at first succumbs to the temptation and lives life as an oridinary man, the beauty of the writing in the final scenes are extraordinary, as Jesus learns that this was the work of Satan. He realizes that he didn’t fight hard enough and that he wants God to take him back. In a flash, we are right back at the cross and we realize it was all a vision. He will die on the cross, knowing that he will eventually rise again. Everything about the script of The Last Temptation of Christ is just better, with exquisite character development and better realizations of who Jesus most likely was.
Advantage: The Last Temptation of Christ
Once again, this is a tough decision. Both Scorsese and Gibson managed to make their films for so little money. However, what makes this round so tough to judge is the simple fact that Scorsese and Gibson made films that were both personal to them. Their heart and soul is in their respective films and it is obvious that both were a labor of love for each respective filmmaker. In fact, Scorsese was lucky that Universal wanted to make The Last Temptation of Christ at all (They owned Cineplex Odeon Theatres, who agreed to show the film, thus giving Universal an outlet to show the film). Scorsese was willing to make the film for next to nothing in order to see his dream come true.
For The Passion of the Christ, Gibson couldn’t even get a studio to make his film. In the end, he decided to finance and market it through Icon Productions-his own company-in order for it to come alive on-screen. Doing it outside of the studio system might have been shocking for those who never would have thought of Gibson doing such, but he did it, and he succeeded.
It’s hard to say which one is directed better. Part of me really wants to go with Scorsese based on the fact that he received a Best Director Oscar nomination for his film, but Gibson’s direction puts up a huge fight. Every shot in his film looks stunning, and his choice to have the film acted in Aramaic and Latin shows that he wanted his film to be as authentic as possible. But the authenticity is not enough either.
Looking at Scorsese’s direction of The Last Temptation of Christ again recently, I was struck by how much more he had to do to achieve his vision. With a budget of only $7 million, Scorsese was able to make his film look like a true screen epic. Not only that, but he is able to get extraordinary work out of his actors, like being able to bring us the most unlikely Judas onto the screen, and having it actually work.
And it’s here where Gibson loses the war. With the exception of Jesus, many of the other characters in The Passion of the Christ have no emotion but to sit there and cry. I never believed that Mary Magdalene, played by Monica Belucci, really loved Jesus, and by knowing next to nothing about her either, the direction somewhat stumbles. In the end, it is so close (about 50.1/49.9), but Scorsese just squeaks it out with the victory here.
Advantage: The Last Temptation of Christ
Once again, both films are filled with amazing performances. Between both Jesuses, Willem Dafoe and Jim Caviezel almost seem like a flat-out draw. Although Caviezel gets an advantage by speaking in Aramaic and Latin, he has a disadvantage of having very little character development (Of course, this goes back to the film’s original story and script, so it’s not his fault). Dafoe’s performance is also great, but he also has a disadvantage of not speaking in those languages, but where he makes it up for it is by developing Jesus as a full flesh-and-blood character. Dafoe’s performance barely inches past Caviezel’s performance, though I’ll give Caviezel a couple of bonus points because he actually resembles Jesus from the artworks I’ve seen throughout my life. It’s a 52/48 split between Dafoe and Caviezel.
When it comes to all the other performances throughout both films though, The Last Temptation of Christ walks away with this round in spades. The performances by Barbara Hershey as Mary Magdalene, Harvey Keitel as Judas, Verna Bloom as Mary, Harry Dean Stanton as Paul/Saul, and David Bowie as Pontius Pilate are all extraordinary, developed beyond what we knew about them to begin with, but the one supporting performance no one talks about is the one given by Juliette Caton as the Girl Angel that Jesus sees on the cross. It is this character that tells Jesus that God didn’t want him to die on the cross. Because Jesus doesn’t realize that he is being tempted, we actually believe this little girl, and more importantly, it is a testament to her performance. Her performance is so subtle that it becomes the most underrated one in the film.
The supporting performances of The Passion of the Christ are not bad in the least, but they pale in comparison to those in The Last Temptation of Christ. Monica Belucci is probably the most well-known person in the international cast, but she isn’t given much to do except lay down on the ground and give a blank expression. Even though it has been a while since I’ve seen the film, I don’t think I’ve ever remembered her even crying, and if I’m correct in this thinking, then the performance already loses its power. However, Maia Morgenstern‘s performance as Mary shows considerable power. You really believe the tears she sheds as Jesus is nailed onto the cross. Although I never actually broke down and cried when I initially saw the film, it was this moment that brought me closest to it.
The only other real performance of note is that of Hristo Naumov Shopov as Pontius Pilate. Like Bowie’s portrayal of the same character in The Last Temptation of Christ, this is an easier version of that same character, but I feel that Shopov outdoes Bowie here by a wide margin. This performance actually helps The Passion of the Christ a bit here, only because it’s played in such a subtle way that it doesn’t get in the way of the violence. The look he gives as he watches Jesus being nailed to the cross is one of the most haunting looks I’ve ever seen.
Unfortunately, Shopov, Morgenstern, and Caviezel are not enough to help The Passion of the Christ win the round. Even with the successful performances in the Aramaic and Latin languages, the film as a whole has a number of performances that do nothing to convince me of their roles in the final film. Where The Last Temptation of Christ succeeds in almost all performances, Gibson’s film misses the mark. Still, The Passion of the Christ puts up a much closer fight here than I initially thought, but not close enough.
Advantage: The Last Temptation of Christ
Both films are amazing, but despite The Passion of the Christ‘s cinematography by Caleb Deschanel, which is in a class by itself, The Last Temptation of Christ takes it all. It’s just a better all-around movie and it has a lot more to offer for anyone interested in the life of Jesus Christ. It also has exquisite performances, stellar direction, and a beautiful screenplay. The winner by unanimous decision is The Last Temptation of Christ!