WHAT I LIKED: As it explicitly states at the start, Scorsese's 'The Last Temptation of Christ,' is not an adaptation of the gospels or a telling of Jesus' story; it's an epic, fantastical exploration of the conflict of human conscience - between life's sanctity and its evil realities. It's just made infinitely more powerful by the fact it's about one of legend's most equally sacred and troubled lifes of all.
In the film, Christ has witnessed and commited countless sins - sometimes by obligation, often by temptation or misjudgement - but he remains unpunished and obliged to live and make the most of his sacred life because of his relationship with God. This leads him to hate himself, to question God's word and to push God away as he knows his life is eternally sacred but he struggles to value and make sense of it. Whilst he eventually choses to make a difference and spread God's word across the desert, along the way his torturous conflict continues as he laboriously sheds all sin and temptation. That's a fascinating thing to witness whether you're religious or not, as the sanctity of life and its possibilities vs the abuses of that in reality are core to the question of man and his conscience.
It's unsurprising that Scorsese should want to bring such a story to life of course, as the themes of evil and temptation acting against an internal compass is what most of his characters are all about - it's just that here God plays the conscience. The biggest difference is the way in which Scorsese is exploring those ideas, as it's not executed through the membrane of a naturalistic character study, but through a far more abstract cinematic language that's extremely different from his usual affair.
The conflicts of conscience are overtly and mystically narrated, the camera zooms quickly and the lighting is stark to add drama, and Peter Gabriel's score swells and pulses often throughout various montages and slow motion sequences. Paul Schrader's script is full of heavy thematic dialogue, and the performances are thus necessarily grandiose and dramatic. Willem Dafoe does a great job making Jesus both man and God-like, but ultimately this is a film of ideas above character that certainly doesn't deserve the controversy that surrounded it at the time of its release as a result.
WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE: It is an entirely theme-driven film, so - whilst things are admittedly explored through the central character's conflicts - Jesus is primarily a vehicle for those explorations and narrations rather than a successfully rounded character himself. That means it's a real effort to engage with him - and thus the film as a whole - on any kind of emotional level, and though that is perhaps a paradox any movie of this kind must inevitably contend with, the fact that the dialogue is so ideas-heavy and surprisingly on the nose is the real problem there.
So without a character to truly engage, you'll be left pondering the ideas for sure, but also wallowing in the many sequences which are often far too drawn-out and even narratively abstract to those unfamiliar with Christian mythology. In the end it thus has to be said that whilst Scorsese's many films about criminal scoundrels and mobsters overtly say less about the human conscience than this film does, they've ultimately translated such themes far more successfully to the audience.
VERDICT: By directly exploring the conflict between reality's rich darkness and life's deep sanctity through one of legend's most sacred and troubled figures, Scorsese's 'The Last Temptation of Christ,' is a fascinating and thought-provoking thematic exploration of conscience. Its execution just means it doesn't translate on an engaging or emotional level.