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.
Scorsese had been planning to make the film for many years. A planned production, with a different cast (including Aidan Quinn as Jesus), had been scrapped a few years prior. This was a very personal project for Scorsese and he ended up making it for a relatively low budget, shooting on location in Morocco. The result is a very earnest film. Beyond the cinematography of Michael Ballhaus, Peter Gabriel’s transcendent score, and generally good performances (especially by Dafoe), what one takes from this film will likely depend quite a bit on one’s relationship with the Christian faith. On one level the film is a slightly delirious head trip about a very demented individual. “If I was a woodcutter, I’d cut. If I was a fire, I’d burn,” Jesus says at one point. “But I’m a heart, and I love.” Firstly, that’s an imperfect analogy (if he was truly a heart, he’d beat). Second, taken at face value that sounds like a pretty nutty way to avoid choosing an actual job.
In the end, this is not one of Martin Scorsese’s great films. The tone is uneven, approaching camp at some points (check out Andre Gregory’s over the top John the Baptist, who comes off more like Andy Dick). Scorsese, and screenwriters Schrader and Jay Cocks, seem to assume the viewer will already have at least some basic knowledge of Christ’s life. But without that prior knowledge, the movie feels like a narrative jumble. This is a serious film and not without merit, but in the end it’s a very tough sell. To this day, many Christians see it as an abomination. Many non-Christians are likely to wonder what all the fuss is about. At its core, the film is a piece of speculative fantasy based on legend. What’s more entertaining than the film itself is reading the ramblings of zealots who still can’t stand the fact that it was even made.
The Last Temptation of Christ looks very impressive on Criterion’s 1080p Blu-ray. The image is sharp, especially when compared to the previous standard DVD released in 2000. That earlier Criterion release was good for its time, but by comparison that transfer had a slightly washed-out look during the bright daylight scenes. This is not the case with the Blu-ray, which offers accurate, realistic colors and flesh tones. The color palette is restricted primarily to light earth tones, so there isn’t much to show off. But the blue sky contrasts wonderfully with the beiges and browns of the desert landscape. I didn’t notice any scratches or dirt specs throughout (also an improvement over the earlier DVD). Criterion has achieved a very strong update for Last Temptation.
The audio is present in a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix that similarly improves upon the 2000 DVD’s Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. Overall the new mix not only sounds fuller, it is more crisp. The dialogue has greater presence and really rings out. Peter Gabriel’s score benefits the most, probably because its really the only other consistently significant soundtrack element. Ambiance is present at all times in the rear channels, but it is rarely draws attention to itself. The score is well balanced throughout all channels, with an increased bottom end. The film sounds as good as it looks.
Nothing new has been added to Criterion’s Blu-ray, though the video features ported over from the 2000 DVD are presented in high definition. These include some very primitive VHS footage shot by Scorsese on location during production and an interview with Gabriel about the score. Still galleries provide further glimpses of the various stages of production. The best feature by far is a commentary track featuring Scorsese, screenwriters Paul Schrader and Jay Cocks. Willem Dafoe pops in every once in a while for comments as well. The participants were recorded separately for an edited track that conveys a great deal of context and background about the film.