The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray edition of Martin Scorsese’s most controversial film, The Last Temptation of Christ, marks a significant upgrade in audio and visual quality over their 2000 DVD. The film, based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ 1953 novel of the same name, was a flashpoint of controversy upon its release in 1988. The controversy has never completely dissipated. Not based on the actual gospels, as stated in a title scroll at the start of the film, the story offers sort of an alternate version of the life of Christ. Though still reverent and respectful, the film presents the son of God as a human being, susceptible to human temptations. This ruffled more than a few feathers around the world and the film never found a wide audience.
The film opens in Judea with Jesus Christ (Willem Dafoe), already aware of the spiritual mission God expects him to lead, building crucifixes that will be used by the Romans to execute Jewish revolutionaries. After convincing Judas Iscariot (Harvey Keitel) that he is the messiah, Jesus puts together a team of disciples. From that point on, we see a series of high points of the Jesus legend. Jesus saves Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey) from public stoning. Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist (Andre Gregory). We see Jesus embrace his role as messiah wholeheartedly, literally ripping out his heart with his bare hand to show his disciples. Soon he is performing miracles, including resurrecting Lazarus (Tomas Acana). Before long he is viewed as a threat to the Roman Empire.
It’s the film’s final act, where things turn into a reversal of It’s a Wonderful Life, that spurred most of the controversy. While being crucified, Jesus is visited by a female claiming to be his guardian angel. The climax of the film is an extended sequence that imagines what Jesus could have had were he to live a long, ordinary life. Much like George Bailey seeing how things would be had he never been born, Jesus is shown what the world would be like had he not died on the cross. This material is the most interesting in the film, though it’s difficult to see what upset so many people. On the commentary track, screenwriter Paul Schrader does admit that on an academic level the concept of Jesus as a regular guy is sacrilegious. But at no point are the speculative situations explored in the film disparaging toward Jesus Christ. I guess any deviation at all from the accepted “truths” about Christ’s life is enough to inspire knee-jerk reactions en masse.