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THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Barbara Hershey, Harry Dean Stanton, David Bowie
Director:  Martin Scorsese
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  163 Minutes
Release Date:  April 25, 2000

Film ****

The Last Temptation of Christ might very well be the most controversial film of the last 15 years.  Given the picture’s subject matter, that was probably unavoidable, but still, a bit sad, because there have been very few films in history as deeply spiritual as this one.  One only need remember that director Martin Scorsese has strong personal ties to the Catholic Church (he even intended to become a priest in his youth) to understand that his intentions for bringing Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel to the screen were good ones, and I think for anyone who’s watched the movie beginning to end with an open mind, the results speak for themselves.

When this picture first came out, I was working as an usher supervisor for a local theatre.  And we received many copies of the form letter petition from various churches, which threatened a one year boycott of any movie house that dared show this degenerate film.  Included on the petitions were selections of various quotes from the film to demonstrate how blasphemous it was.  The petition targeted both Universal Studios and Martin Scorsese as evil.  And our theatre, like many, succumbed to the pressure and agreed not to book the film (United Artists actually refused the movie on a national level).  Only one theatre in my town showed the picture, and the picketers came out in full force against it.

Problem is, controversy always inspires curiosity.  It did with me, and I braved the peaceful protesters to see just how bad the film really was.  That’s what I was expecting from the movie. 

What I actually got out of it was not expected.  I found the film to be incredibly moving and powerful, and particularly courageous in the way it addressed real, everyday moral and spiritual concerns…something mainstream Hollywood seldom does. 

The central theme of the movie is the constant struggle between the spirit and the flesh…of having the desire to seek and attain divinity, but battling with earthly temptations.  The movie uses the central figure of Jesus (Dafoe) as the literal embodiment of that struggle.  According to Gospel, Jesus was both fully human and fully divine.  The film uses that duality as the basis to present us with a Jesus who followed the will of God, but in a way that was never easy.  He had to fight real temptations, just like any of us, and deal with setbacks, including people who had no interest in his message, weak and quarrelsome disciples, and a constant uncertainty of his role and his place…like most spiritual journeys, his was a life long one, and could not be fully understood until the end of it.

Scorsese created a film with a great look to it…his locations and settings really seem to ring out with a sense of history, and help create a world that is hot and bleak, yet somehow, capable of miracles.  His casting choices were excellent, including Dafoe in his greatest performance and Harvey Keitel as Judas…by using actors such as them, he was able to keep the story grounded and connected to the audience, real rather than poetic, and not as distant from us as most of the Biblical epics he grew up watching. 

But most importantly, his film is a spiritual triumph.  Many friends of mine who were not particularly religious were moved and touched by this picture.  The movie is not at all about a Jesus who failed.  It is about a Jesus whose triumph was complete and beyond measure.  The film is respectful enough to take Jesus’ message seriously, and appreciate the hardship he must have experienced as his words often fell on deaf ears or those who would kill him for daring to speak about such new, challenging ideas concerning man’s relationship with God.

For those who would protest the film without having seen it, there’s not much I can say…they’re probably better off not watching (the initial petition, however, was glaringly wrong in most of the quotes and scenarios purported to be in the film, and the ones that were correct were taken blatantly out of context).  Instead, I would appeal to those who either relish brilliant filmmaking that captures the true essence and struggle of humanity on screen, or those who would be willing to watch with an open mind and no pre-conceived notions.  Even if some walk away feeling the picture wasn’t for them, at least they would have judged the movie properly…seeing it before forming an opinion.

Consider the film above all, a journey of faith.  Trust in Scorsese and his vision, and let it take you where it wants to from beginning to end, and the rewards are ample.  When Jesus cries out from the cross, “It is accomplished!”, we understand just what a hard fought and well earned victory it was.

Video ****

What an impressive job Criterion has done with this anamorphic transfer!  I’ve seen this picture numerous times over the last decade, but nothing compares to the visual pleasure of this DVD.  Images are incredibly sharp and crystal clear throughout, with excellent detail and texture.  Nothing ever softens or loses definition.  The coloring is superb…beautifully rendered and contained, and natural looking throughout, even under the influence of darkness or tinted lighting.  Daylit scenes are especially beautiful.  Until watching this DVD, I had never really picked up on what a beautiful film this was to view.  There are one or two occasions of noticeable nicks on the print, but they are so few and far between, I didn’t feel it worthy of docking any points for it.  If all 10 year old films were as clean as this, there’d be no complaints.

Audio ****

This is a wonderful audio mix, clean and balanced.  Most of the dialogue and action occurs across the front channels, with very sparing use of the surrounds, except an occasional crowd scene.  Where the soundtrack really excels is with Peter Gabriel’s amazing score…passionate, powerful, and extremely percussive, his music makes the best use of the .1 channel, bringing a solid, resonating bottom end to many scenes.  At one point, the lowness was so strong, I could feel my couch vibrating under me!  The score is also mixed with respect to all channels, giving occasional instrumental cues to the rear channels for a more enveloping listening experience.  High marks.

Features ****

For starters, a great commentary track featuring Martin Scorsese, Willem Dafoe, writer Paul Schrader and revisionist Jay Cocks (though I personally wished Scorsese could have done a track by himself as well).  There’s also a collection of research materials, stills, costume designs, location production footage shot by Scorsese, a filmed interview with composer Peter Gabriel with a stills gallery of some of the exotic instruments used in making the music, plus animated menu screens with music.  Criterion scores again!

Summary:

The Last Temptation of Christ is a remarkable, profound motion picture experience, one that dares delve deep into the realm of serious spirituality and the constant, nagging battle between good and evil that plays out constantly in the soul of humanity.  I consider it one of the best films of the 80’s, treasuring it even more than Scorsese’s other classic Raging Bull.  And this DVD represents another triumph for the Criterion Collection in terms of quality and extras.