Criterion // 1988 // 163 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // March 13th, 2012
A remarkable, profoundly personal work of faith.
"If I was a woodcutter, I'd cut. If I was a fire, I'd burn. But I'm a heart and I love. That's the only thing I can do."
Jesus of Nazareth (Willem Dafoe, Shadow of the Vampire) is a Jewish carpenter struggling to come to terms with the fact that he is the son of God. He is hesitant to accept his role as a savior, spends his days making crosses for the Romans and hopes that God will give up on him. However, Jesus eventually determines to accept his holy mission and wander the countryside spreading a message of love. His friend Judas Iscariot (Harvey Keitel, The Piano) had planned to kill Jesus for collaborating with the Romans, but agrees to become a disciple as long as Jesus doesn't waver from his mission of revolution. Over the course of The Last Temptation of Christ, we watch as the title character wrestles with doubt and fear as he works his way towards Calvary.
Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ is based on a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, but as I watched it, I kept thinking of the famous words of another writer: C.S. Lewis.
"I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing people often say about him. 'I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept his claim to be God.' That is the one thing we must not say. A man who said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic -- on a level with a man who says he is a poached egg -- or else he would be the Devil of Hell."
While it could be argued that Lewis is essentially presenting a false dilemma (couldn't a man say such things simply for the sake of getting attention without being mentally ill or some kind of demonic force?), his words seem a little more resonant when regarded in the wake of viewing The Last Temptation of Christ. Scorsese's direction, Paul Schrader & Jay Cocks' screenplay and Willem Dafoe's performance join forces to create a man who either must be regarded as a savior or shunned completely. He is not a benign distributor of gentle pleasantries, he is a revolutionary intent on upending societal norms and changing the way human beings think about the world. It's no surprise that Judas considers his two primary options to be A) devoting his life to Jesus and B) killing him.
Most cinematic depictions of Jesus have been reverent to the point of becoming tedious. In films like King of Kings and The Greatest Story Ever Told, the actors playing Christ speak in hushed tones, as if they know their holy words are being recorded for posterity. They are gentle, ethereal, harmless figures. One of Christianity's most intriguing mysteries is the notion that Jesus was simultaneously human and God, but most pop culture portraits of Christ have only focused on the latter part. The Last Temptation of Christ gives us a Christ who is very human -- he is tormented, he struggles to overcome his temptations, he weeps, he laughs, and he gets angry. At the time of its release, many attacked The Last Temptation of Christ as a sacrilegious desecration of scripture, but most of the attackers didn't actually watch the movie. If they did, they might have discovered that Scorsese's lovingly-crafted film presents the most moving and profound portrait of Christ's sacrifice captured onscreen to date.
While Mel Gibson's memorable The Passion of the Christ offered a striking portrait of the assorted physical torments Christ endured, The Last Temptation of Christ takes the more resonant approach of examining the mental and spiritual torments Christ endured. He is in agony long before he is nailed to the cross; the sheer burden of his spiritual calling weighs heavily on his mind during his years as a humble carpenter: "God loves me. I know he loves me. I want him to stop," he says in a moment of self-loathing. In the film's famous third act, Jesus has an extended vision of what life might be like if he simply removed himself from the cross and decided to enjoy an ordinary existence. This section was the most savagely attacked, as the scenes it offers include a moment of Christ enjoying marital bliss with Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey, Black Swan). Sadly, the critics generally neglect to observe the context: what we're seeing is merely a portrait of the things which tempt Christ -- the desires he has which he must sacrifice in order to save humanity. For me, the approach is a profoundly moving one. Christ wasn't great because he never struggled with temptation, he was great because he was able to overcome those temptations. The Bible recounts his desperate plea for God to remove his heavy task and his struggle to resist Satan's temptations in the desert. Does it really seem like a stretch to believe that Jesus would yearn for -- and ultimately resist -- the basic pleasures of human life?
The film is filled with fine performances, but Dafoe certainly carries the movie and delivers one of the finest turns of his impressive career. He creates a Christ who is dynamic and in-the-moment; an unstoppable revolutionary force. His performance helps us to understand why some devoted themselves so wholeheartedly to helping Christ carry out his mission and why some hated him with the passion that they did. Dafoe's Christ is impossible to ignore or marginalize, which is precisely the right approach. Harvey Keitel's revisionist take on Judas is also compelling, as Keitel plays him as an angry revolutionary with a buried reflective side. His relationship with Jesus feels like a very personal friendship, not the usual master-servant relationship we're used to seeing. Harry Dean Stanton steals his handful of scenes as the zealous Saul/Paul, Barbara Hershey brings a great deal of sensuous humanity to Mary Magdalene and David Bowie is perfect as the wearily compassionate Pontius Pilate.
The Last Temptation of Christ (Blu-ray) looks infinitely better than the DVD Criterion released some ten years ago. The nighttime sequences in particular benefit from an upgrade in clarity, as blacks are deep and shadow delineation is strong. Detail is exceptional throughout, and there's a moderate layer of natural grain present which gives the 1.85:1/1080p high definition image a very warm quality. Colors are bright and vibrant and flesh tones are natural. It's not a slick showcase film by any stretch, but it looks much stronger than ever before. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is solid, through it's pretty quiet for the bulk of the film's running time. This is frequently a dialogue-driven movie, but a handful of louder hallucinatory sequences and scenes which rely on Peter Gabriel's distinctive, dynamic score really offer your speaker system an impressively immersive workout.
The supplemental package is basically the same stuff we got on the previous Criterion DVD: a commentary featuring Scorsese, Dafoe, Schrader and Jay Cocks; a 1996 interview with Peter Gabriel; some location footage shot by Scorsese; and a couple of still galleries featuring costume designs and publicity shots. Finally, you're given a booklet featuring an essay by David Ehrenstein. The extras are all worth digging through (the commentary is particularly good), but it's a shame Criterion didn't crank out some new supplemental material for this fine flick. A detailed documentary would have been a tremendous addition.
The Last Temptation of Christ is one of Martin Scorsese's most potent and explicit examinations of spiritual guilt and temptation. It takes some admitted liberties with the details of Christ's life, but delivers a profoundly moving and surprisingly respectful portrait of him in the process. Criterion's Blu-ray release may be a little thin in the supplemental department, but the boost in audio and video makes an upgrade essential.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 163 Minutes
Release Year: 1988
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Location Footage
* Image Galleries