The Last Temptation of Christ, which was first released in 1988, follows Jesus Christ (played by Willem Dafoe) as he matures, from discovering that he is the son of God through his confrontation with the Romans and eventual crucifixion. It was a movie that was based on a book, however, it wasn’t exactly the Bible. Rather, it was Nikos Kazantzakis’ 1955 novel of the same name, in which the religious figure was seen struggling with many sorts of temptations, such as doubt, lust, and reluctance.
Dafoe admitted in an interview with Entertainment Weekly that playing Jesus brought enormous obstacles and that he particularly struggled with one sequence, even though the Martin Scorsese-directed religious film is regarded as one of his best films.
“I have so many memories from filming because it’s vivid in my imagination, still — I can remember very specific scenes and sensations because it was one of the most demanding roles, physically, for me,” he said. “It was full-on.”
He continued, “[The hardest part] was being on the cross. Regardless of your religious upbringing, you have a strong association of what that is, and then when you take it onto your body it’s very powerful. I was on this big hill in rural Morocco and could see for miles and the sky was blue, blue, blue.”
Apart from Scorsese, Dafoe claims that the ability to explore the “human side” of Jesus was what drew him to the role. “Of course, I would have done anything in that movie, it’s Scorsese,” he said. “But the fact that the role was Jesus was better — it was clear that he wanted to tell the story from the human side of Jesus, he didn’t want it all jazzed up. He wanted to bring it back into the body of a man and I felt like I was ready to do that.”
Similar to the book, The Last Temptation of Christ was met with strong opposition and debate when it was first released. A number of religious organisations deemed the movie to be blasphemous. “I remember when it was about to be released they started feeling that there was going to be pressure, some sort of controversy,” he recalled.
“We showed it in Venice and they rushed it out to release so they could get the movie seen before the controversy would bury it. That’s my memory of it. And when it came out, the press tour was very blunt because the distribution was under fire, particularly in more rural areas there was a lot of pressure not to distribute the movie. The choice to see it wasn’t made available to people because there were threats against the movie, both physical and in terms of boycotting.”
Nevertheless, The Last Temptation of Christ, which received nominations for both the Oscar and the Golden Globe awards, became one of the greatest films of the 1980s.