Our review of The Last Temptation of Christ (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection, published March 13th, 2012, is also available.
"How will you ever pay for your sins?"
"With my life, Judas. I don't have anything else."
One of the most controversial films ever made, The Last Temptation of Christ is an extraordinary movie. Based on Nikos Kazantzakis' novel, Martin Scorsese's adaptation is the portrayal of Jesus as fully divine and fully human, with all that that entails. Roundly criticized and vilified by right wing conservative Christians upon its release, the film is a beautiful re-telling of the story of Jesus with a slightly off-center slant that we have never seen before.
Before seeing this film, there are a few things one should understand. First, the many collaborators who worked together to pull The Last Temptation of Christ together are from vastly different backgrounds. Scorsese came from a very working-class background, and was raised very Catholic. Screenwriter Paul Schrader came from an upper middle class family and is Calvinist. Author Nikos Kazantzakis was Greek Orthodox. As such, it is highly unlikely that there existed some tremendous worldwide conspiracy to chop away at the roots of Christianity. Nevertheless, that is exactly the viewpoint of those who would criticize this film.
Taken for what it is, The Last Temptation of Christ is a wondrous film about Christ's humanity—his weakness, his frailty, his self doubts and self-loathing, his fear of doing the wrong thing and fear of doing the right, even his fear of being God's son. It will make you think about (or rethink) your positions about Jesus and the New Testament's stories about his life, whether you want to or not. It probably won't change your mind, but it will make you think. And that, to me, is what a good film should do.
The film opens with Jesus suffering from that most human frailty, a splitting headache. He is curled into a fetal position on the dusty earth, writhing in pain. We later learn he has been plagued by these and voices, as though someone or something has been clawing to get inside his skull. Yet he has doubts whether these pains come from God or Satan. These are just the first of his doubts to be revealed to us. The next hour and a half or so is spent re-telling the story of Jesus from a slightly different perspective. The words are modernized and non-biblical. Instead of reciting the "parables" on the mount, Jesus tells everyone a "story"—with hilarious effect, I might add. But the missteps highlighted by Scorsese's camera are always taken seriously and played to their serious end. Do not be fooled. This is not meant to comfort us, but rather set up the final several minutes, which even further emphasize the humanity of Jesus as a man.
In fact, if I have one criticism of the film, it is that it ran a bit too long. I felt as though the beginning two hours could have been shortened a bit. Indeed, I believe it is possible to make a two-hour film of only the final act, but that would have left way too much out of the story, and would have lacked the punch intended by Scorsese. For we were meant to see that this Jesus is, indeed, the real thing—but only perceived differently. Therefore, it is imperative that we see him perform miracles, including curing the blind man, and raising Lazarus from the dead.
The final act of the film is the crux of the matter. While being crucified, Jesus is tempted one final time by Satan (in the form of a small girl) who convinces him that God never really wanted him to die, that he has played his part and is now free to go. During this hallucination, we see Jesus marry the love of his life, bury her, fornicate and father several children. At last, he is happy. But in his hallucination he is confronted by Judas who is angry he gave in, and insists that he was meant to die on the cross. Jesus' final act is to choose the cross and flush Satan out of his gambit, for if he was indeed fully human, then he must have been endowed with that most human frailty—free will—and must have chosen to fulfill his role as the Lamb of God willingly.
This last scene (along with many smaller scenes scattered throughout the film) is what unleashed the rhetoric of the right. But, why not portray the all-human Jesus as suffering his greatest temptation during his greatest time of doubt? Talk about finality. Nailed to the cross, about to die for something he is not completely sure of would make doubters of us all—or psychopaths. It is the subject matter at hand and their inability to see it as mere fantasy that drove most criticism of the film way back when in 1988. Most offensive to me was the way many who criticized The Last Temptation of Christ never even saw the film, but were merely reacting to rumor, speculation and press reports. Ugh.
This Criterion DVD of The Last Temptation of Christ is splendid. It clearly illustrates exactly what Criterion is best at—delivering top-notch video and audio transfers supplemented with the finest materials that can be found, scrounged and created. Once again we are treated to what I have come to call a Criterion Commentary. The commentary track on this disc is filled with terrific, behind-the-scenes tidbits, which will enhance your understanding and appreciation for the film. It includes thoughts from Scorsese, screenwriter Schrader, actor Willem Dafoe, and Jay Cocks who worked with Scorsese while tweaking Schrader's script. Once you hear one commentary track produced in this way, you will never want to go back to the one-man shows favored by the big studios. You know the ones I mean—filled with long pauses and uninteresting stories. This is the way to do a commentary track Hollywood—wake up! The disc also includes a wonderful collection of research materials compiled by Scorsese during pre-production, production stills and costume design materials. Also included is an interview with composer Peter Gabriel (with more still photos of some of the unique and exotic musical instruments and musicians used) and location production footage shot on video by Scorsese himself (which is hilarious by the way).
The new anamorphic transfer on this disc is very, very good. The picture comes off as nearly three-dimensional at times and the compressionists handled some very difficult scenes with flair (such as the sandstorm in the desert and the burning flame at night). The palette is understandably earthy and dusty, but the color of blood plays a very central role in this film and the juxtaposition between the red and beige comes off well. There is no edge overenhancement present and all is well with the color saturation too. The one niggling part has to do with the print used for the transfer, which was far from perfect. The contrast is made more stark considering the hard work put in by Criterion on the likes of The Passion of Joan of Arc or some of their other older titles. The work on those prints is masterful, whereas, here we have a 1988 film and I'm sure the best possible element was dug up and used as is. The problem is that it is not perfect, which is what we are accustomed to seeing from Criterion. As a result, I am afraid they suffer a bit by the standard they have set for themselves. The issue here is a small amount of nicks and scratches and some even smaller incidents of a mildly dirty element. Not enough to really even bother, unless you're looking for it, but it is there. And compared to the masterful restoration work done on so many other masterpieces, I would have liked to see more of that done here. That said, this really is as good as it ever will get for this film, in all likelihood.
There is one other major problem with the video on this disc, and it has to do with the coding of the disc. Rather than paraphrase, I'll lift this explanation straight from the Criterion web site:
The Criterion Collection edition of The Last Temptation of Christ was inadvertently authored with a feature enabled that causes some out-of-the-box DVD players to zoom in and resize the 1.85:1 image to fill a standard 4:3 television set, creating an automatic pan-scan version of the film. This problem does not show up if users have set the playback mode in the DVD player menu to match the monitor being used. Unfortunately many DVD users have never visited their player setup menus, and some common players are shipped with 4:3 pan-scan mode set as a default. Criterion routinely disables this feature to spare customers confusion, and will disable this feature on all future printings of Last Temptation.
To view The Last Temptation of Christ in its proper aspect ratio, please access DVD player's setup menu and set the playback mode preference to 4:3 letterbox mode if you are using a standard television monitor or 16:9 mode if you are using a widescreen set.
If for some reason this solution does not work for you, please contact Jon Mulvaney and be sure to include the make and model number of your DVD player.
Peter Gabriel's soundtrack is glorious in all its 5.1 splendor. The bass module was hopping around my floor all night as I had the volume cranked up pretty good. The soundtrack can overpower the vocals at times, so you may want to consider playing some of the film to re-calibrate your system a bit. Vocals were always clear and there were some very well done surround elements presented here, the best of which may actually have made an appearance right in Chapter 1.
As good as the writing and video and audio are in this film, it is the performances that are driving the bus, in my opinion. Willem Dafoe (Platoon, The English Patient) really comes off well as Jesus. His character is clearly conflicted and Dafoe takes him meaningfully through his many states as a God of Love, God of the Sword and God of Pity. Watch him physically change from the vengeful to pitiful as he stands before the statue of Caesar in the temple. You'll see what I mean. Harvey Keitel (Pulp Fiction, Taxi Driver) is another strongpoint as Judas. He was assigned to kill Jesus by his political backers, but has decided instead to follow Jesus, just in case he is the Messiah. A very strong performance, as you might expect. And Barbara Hershey (The Last of the Dogmen, Hoosiers) is terrific as Mary Magdalene. She bears a terrific weight trying to pull off the role of über-tart. I mean, who else would have even tried to play the role that tempts Jesus away from Godliness into a life of complete humanity. More importantly, who else could have pulled it off? Sarah Michelle Gellar? Yeah, right. Interestingly, Hershey played a key role in getting the film made, having handed the novel to Scorsese while they were filming Boxcar Bertha together for Roger Corman back in the early '70s.
Also worthy of mention here is a vastly understated and underplayed performance by David Bowie (Labyrinth, Basquiat) as Pontius Pilate. Scorsese sets up an interesting turn by casting most Romans with drawling English accents, and it works well.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Some of the smaller players left a bit to be desired, but what would you expect having filmed the entire film for about eight million dollars. In fact, the film was largely shot on location in Morocco simply because it was cheaper to film there than in Israel.
The Last Temptation of Christ can finally be viewed removed from the controversy it originally created back in 1988. I doubt it will ever change your mind about Jesus or Christianity. Our own notions are too strong for that—far too strong. It will never make a non-believer from a believer, or vice versa. But it should make you think, and that is all that matters.
Criterion is acquitted for delivering another fine example of what a DVD can be. Are you listening, MGM and Paramount? Scorsese is acquitted for taking and surviving an incredible professional risk to deliver a vastly personal vision and a religious one at that. Case Dismissed.
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