Yes, it’s true. And here’s the best part of the surprise: he‘s terrific! Though he’s only on-screen for a few minutes towards the end of The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), his portrayal of Pontius Pilate is resoundingly effective. He doesn’t play Pilate as the epitome of evil that some depictions paint him as, but instead as a busy bureaucrat who holds nothing personal against Jesus but is instead just doing what he needs to in order to maintain peace in his province. As he points out to Jesus soon before the crucifixion,
“You’re just another of these religious revolutionaries making difficulties. You take the people into the desert, you talk about God, love, mercy and the new kingdom, but you’re just the same as the Zealots. You all promise glory and bring death. There’s a new Messiah every week and a new one dies every week and Rome continues.”
For Christians to condemn Pilate or see him as “evil” is completely illogical, anyway, for had he inexplicably become sympathetic to Jesus’ cause, what would he have done? Not crucified him? Where would the Christian religion be then? Without a crucifixion, there would be no reason to celebrate Christ’s triumph over his humanity and, on the grander scale, death. In order to maintain an historically viable sense of what was going on in Jerusalem circa 32 A.D., we must understand that Pilate was merely a bureaucrat with a job to do. End of story.
Bowie’s delivery is appropriately level-headed and aloof. Even the words above, which can be read out of context as annoyance or frustration on Pilate’s part, are spoken in a very calm and reserved manner. He is, after all, a good Roman who is well versed in civilized manners and who practices the proper Roman modes of communication (“Don’t look in the air. Look at me. Answer me,” he says to Jesus early on in the scene). There is no hint of anger or vengeance in Bowie’s voice or demeanor, and so his portrayal is spot-on. Brief as it is, his performance is among the best in the film.
He is so good, in fact, that while my friend Maggie and I were watching the film, we didn’t even realize it was Bowie in the role. We merely commented to each other about how well portrayed Pilate is. Only after doing some research on the cast for my reflection on the movie did I realize who he was. Who would have thought that Ziggy Stardust would have ever been a perfect Pilate? Well, Scorsese, I guess. But all the same: Bravo, Bowie!