Color, 1988, 164m.
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Barbara Hershey, Verna Bloom, Irvin Kershner, John Lurie, David Bowie
Criterion (Blu-Ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)/ DTS-HD MA 5.1
Few films have earned a controversial reputation in a manner as unjust as The Last Temptation of Christ, which sent Bible Belters only familiar with its title and vague premise into a frenzy of protests at the few theaters brave enough to show it. Few moviegoers managed to actually see it on the big screen during its initial run, but home video made it a very hot ticket. Of course, anyone expecting a Ken Russell-style, blasphemous extravaganza was stunned to find instead a thoughtful, subdued, reverent, and even moving film whose speculative narrative device in the final act drives home the impact of its original Biblical story. Adapted from the equally volatile novel by Nikos Kazantzakis (which was given to Scorsese by leading lady Barbara Hershey when they were filming Boxcar Bertha), the film was adapted by Calvinist filmmaker/screenwrite Paul Schrader for director Martin Scorsese, and it's just as unorthodox and thought provoking as their other collaborations on Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Bringing Out the Dead.
Unlike most other films about the life of Jesus (played here by Willem Dafoe) which focus entirely on a sense of divine destiny and otherworldliness, Scorsese's version reflects on his humanity during his adulthood. The familiar events are covered ranging from his devoted followers like Mary Magdalene (Hershey) and the Apostles to his betrayal at the hands of Judas (Keitel) and his trial before Pontius Pilate (Bowie). However, most of the attention on this film has focused on the final act in which, during the crucifixion, Satan appears and tempts Jesus with the possibility of abandoning his mission and leading life as an average human being into old age. More won't be spoiled here for anyone who hasn't seen the film, but the manner in which this final "temptation" is depicted results in one of the most transcendent final shots ever captured on film.
The Last Temptation of Christ was made during a particularly odd juncture in Scorsese's career. He had kicked off the '80s with Raging Bull but segued into a pair of brilliant but niche dark comedies (After Hours and The King of Comedy) as well as the fairly well-received but minor The Color of Money. Here you can feel a fire reigniting under him that would reach full force two years later with GoodFellas and the film he had to make for Universal in exchange for funding this one, Cape Fear. On the more cult-y side of things, you also get a fantastic score by the legendary Peter Gabriel (issued separately as his album Passion) and a really bizarre supporting cast including Roberts Blossom (Deranged), director Irvin Kershner (in his film debut, which he followed with On Deadly Ground!), experimental music pioneer John Lurie (as James), Harry Dean Stanton, and even Tomas Arana (The Church). This also marked the third film in a row teaming Scorsese with the great Michael Ballhaus, who became famous with a string of Rainer Werner Fassbender films and would go on to shoot Bram Stoker's Dracula and The Departed. Obviously, this is not your average religious epic.
Though its inital history on home video was a bit rocky (with many large chains refusing the carry the film on VHS but stashing a copy or two in the back for employee perusal), The Last Temptation of Christ overcame its public stigma to become regarded as a watershed film of its decade thanks to regular critical support and a growing cult fanbase. That legitimacy was sealed when Criterion selected it as a deluxe laserdisc release, then ported it over to DVD with a fresh, newly approved transfer. Once again that edition gets a welcome boost on Blu-Ray, which offers a fascinating demonstration of the huge advances video technology makes each decade. The Blu-Ray easily blows away its predecessors and looks incredibly rich and filmic, with the all-important landscape shots finally coming across as detailed and refined rather than the brown, indistinct blurs found in standard def. The color palette remains mostly muted throughout (apart from a handful of sparing but effective blasts of intense hues, especially right before the end credits), with the earthy and bluish tones looking accurate and pleasing throughout. Since both Ballhaus and editor Thelma Schoonmaker supervised and signed off on the transfer, it's probably safe to say this is the most accurate version of the film we're going to get for a very long time. Audio is presented in English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, and while you may not notice a huge boost in fidelity during the quieter dialogue scenes, it really explodes to life every time Gabriel's music surges on the soundtrack. The extras essentially replicate the DVD experience (down to the liner notes by critic David Ehrenstein), including a terrific audio commentary with Scorsese, Dafoe, Schrader, and Jay Cocks (a journalist and future Scorsese screenwriter and husband of Verna Bloom, who plays Mary in the film). All of them are extremely literate in both the technique and history of flm, obviously, and it feels like a marvelous, mini-sized course in adaptation and film production with a room full of excellent teachers. As for video extras, you get a modest but recommended 13-minute video interview with Gabriel, a reel of location footage shot in Morocco, a slew of stills from the set and visual research material (including a diverse array of artwork) used for the film, and a sketch gallery of Jean-Pierre Delifer's costume designs.