West Reviews Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation Of Christ [Criterion Blu-ray Review]

Martin Scorsese’s 1988 indie biblical epic The Last Temptation Of Christ is now available on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection. One of Scorsese’s most personal directorial achievements, this film has been upgraded with obvious care, but while it certainly benefits from a high-definition transfer, the disc as a whole contains precious little that is new for those who already have the Criterion DVD (or, in fact, the original Criterion laserdisc).

Based on a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation Of Christ stars Willem Dafoe as Jesus in a remarkable performance that presents the son of God as a man who can do some admittedly amazing stuff rather than as pure unvarnished divinity with a beatific smile and heavenly light shining down on him at all times and everywhere. This is a deeply conflicted Jesus, who is struggling to understand and accept the role in which destiny has cast him, and I can think of no other screen depiction that has ever given me a deeper appreciation for the life of Christ. Harvey Keitel co-stars as the surliest Judas ever, along with Barbara Hershey as Mary Magdalene and a brief appearance from David Bowie as Pontius Pilate; there is also a gallery of great character actors including Harry Dean Stanton, Andre Gregory, Victor Argo, and even Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kershner. The story of Jesus may be familiar to some if not most readers, but Scorsese’s interpretation is very much unlike any other biblical film which, apart from its already controversial nature, may make it a bit hard to deal with, but hang in there, because this is a richly rewarding experience.

The new HD transfer is fantastic, retaining the look of film with appropriate grain and preserving the warm color palette of cinematographer Michael Ballhaus. The sound has been similarly treated with care, using the surround channels appropriately but never to excess, and emphasizing the beauty of Peter Gabriel’s wonderful musical score. A weird error found on the first pressing of the Criterion DVD has, fortunately, not been duplicated on the Blu-ray: approximately 34 minutes into the film, at the beginning of the scene in which Mary is about to be stoned to death, Jesus and Judas are approaching and Judas caustically remarks, “It’s Magdalene. She deserves it.” This is inaudible on the first-pressing DVD (it is my understanding that the error did not appear on later pressings), but you can hear it just fine on the Blu-ray.

The extras, alas, are almost exactly the same as those that Criterion has been using all along, dating back to the 1997 laserdisc edition: there is a very informative commentary track, containing remarks edited together from Scorsese, screenwriters Paul Schrader and Jay Cocks, and Willem Dafoe. A brief excerpt of home video that Scorsese shot on location is also included; a more extensive look at location shooting would have surely been fascinating, but as the director himself says, he simply didn’t have the energy to devote to a “video diary” as well as the film itself. There is also an interview with Peter Gabriel, galleries of photographs and production materials, and a pamphlet containing an essay by film critic David Ehrenstein that has been updated from the original DVD release to include some remarks about Mel Gibson’s 2004 The Passion Of The Christ.

And that’s about it. I have always been disappointed that there never seemed to be an attempt at documenting the tremendous storm of controversy that surrounded the film’s original theatrical release, and a Criterion edition seems the ideal platform for one. I well recall the large crowds that descended on Universal Studios in 1988 to protest the production, and I remember crossing picket lines just to see the film when it was eventually released. I was also working in the customer service department of a newspaper in Orange County at the time, and a columnist wrote a piece calling the protestors “idiots”, which on the morning of its publication led to a deluge of angry phone calls from outraged customers demanding that their subscriptions be cancelled immediately. I never forgot the vitriol and hatred that spewed from those people, which is but one of several billion reasons for my wariness of organized religion. Even years after it was first made available on home video, Scorsese’s film was never to be found on the shelves of Blockbuster Video’¦ at least not to my knowledge, since I made a point of not giving them my business for precisely that reason.

Sadly, it appears that some topics will always be too hot to handle, so we may never see a definitive examination of this particular brouhaha. And so the Blu-ray of The Last Temptation Of Christ, as it stands, is a much more polished presentation but will probably be of interest only to those hardcore home video enthusiasts who want the upgraded video presentation, and those Blu-ray owners who have never bought the film before. Criterion DVD owners who are content with what they have need not fear that they are missing anything with this new version. Except maybe a couple of lines of dialogue from Judas. He really is very surly.

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West Anthony

West Anthony is a film/music encyclopedia in a nation that no longer reads. His experience with the Criterion Collection goes far back to a distant time when laserdiscs roamed the earth, enriching mankind with their large, plattery goodness. He has written about many films, produced one, and seen more of them than is probably healthy for a person who wishes to maintain a significant degree of integration with humanity.

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