It’s Easter this weekend, which is a great excuse to revisit one of the many cinematic depictions of the life of Jesus. Now, if you like your Biblical tales packed with spectacle, then 1965’s The Greatest Story Ever Told – with its 4-hour runtime and majestic Max von Sydow Jesus – will be your jam. If you’re looking for contemporary edge and catchy tunes, then the 1973 big screen adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar is for you. And if you’ve got a strong stomach for violence (not to mention fire and brimstone theology), Mel Gibson’s 2003 effort, The Passion of the Christ, will be right up your alley.
However, if you want my top Easter movie pick – the one that really gets under the skin of Nazareth’s most famous export – check out Martin Scorsese’s 1988 masterpiece, The Last Temptation of Christ. Based off the equally-controversial book by Nikos Kazantzakis, the film offers up a lot of complex ideas to digest (not to mention a brief appearance by David Bowie!), and is arguably the greatest Easter movie of all time.
Jesus like you’ve never seen him before
The Last Temptation of Christ explores the internal conflict Jesus experiences thanks to his unique, contradictory nature as a being both human and divine. Brought to life through Willem Dafoe’s moving and raw performance, this is a screen Jesus unlike any other: a man plagued by self-doubt, lust, fear and anger. He’s a guy understandably confused by an ineffable plan revealed to him only in fragments, who doubts his ability to lead people; who rails against his cruel, impending fate; and who just wants to settle down and start a family
Indeed, the Jesus of The Last Temptation of Christ is so relatable that, when offered the chance to bail out on the whole “death by crucifixion” part of the plan, he does what any of us would do: he accepts the offer. Convinced by Satan that God’s plan doesn’t really involve sacrificing his only son, and that it was all just a big test, Jesus happily skips out on his Messiah duties. He fathers a bunch of kids and lives to ripe old age, before realising the error of his ways and hitting the reset button and returning to cross – and it’s this added dimension to his ultimate sacrifice that elevates The Last Temptation of Christ above other Easter efforts.
A misunderstood, underappreciated classic
See, by recasting Jesus as a living, breathing man perpetually tormented by his own needs and desires, Scorsese actually emphasises his divinity. If Dafoe’s Jesus hadn’t experienced all the joys life has to offer, and if he’d unwaveringly walked the road to Calvary, he’s not really giving anything up. But knowing all of this and making the right choice anyway? That’s a big deal, and a choice that arguably only the Son of God could make.
At the same time, it also lends an emotional weight to proceedings that’s absent in more traditional retellings of the Easter story, because it allows us to connect with Jesus in a way no film has matched before or since. We empathise with him at least as often as we’re in awe of him, which makes him more real to us. And this, ultimately, is what makes The Last Temptation of Christ the best Easter movie on the block.