I have long since moved from lapsed Catholic to atheist, but twelve years of Catholic education (no horror stories here; it was great) guarantees that the image of Christ on the cross has a special resonance for me that goes beyond mere mythic iconography. The Greatest Story Ever Told may not quite deserve its hyperbolic status (c’mon, it’s no “2001: A Space Odyssey”) but it’s certainly one of the greatest stories ever told, and I have always been drawn to cinematic adaptations of this defining narrative of modern Western culture.
One of the points my teachers always emphasized was that Jesus was simultaneously fully human and fully divine, but unfortunately they never felt the need to expand upon this mystery, probably because they didn’t know how to, much like most filmmakers, who have generally chosen to ignore it. Most screen versions show us a stolid, steely Son of God who is certain of his divinity and his destiny, and though he always asks his Father for a last minute reprieve with blood-soaked tears, you always get the feeling he’s kind of looking forward to hopping up on the cross so he can say, “I told you so.” Toss in the usual studio schmear of lavish studio sets and “a cast of thousands,” and Jesus the man gets lost in the spectacle, something that happens at Catholic masses far too often as well.
Martin Scorsese’s long-ripening adaptation of novelist Nikos Kazantzakis’ re-imagining of Jesus’ life and death provides a much-needed corrective, focusing its attention on a man who is constantly plagued by doubts. “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988) also provides us with a reminder that there is virtually no way to tell the difference between a savior and a complete whacko. Jesus (Willem Dafoe) has frequent headaches, hears voices, and thinks that the men around him are angels sent to guide him on his journey; today a prescription for Thorazine would stop any naughty Messiah in his tracks. Jesus believes he is called by God to sacrifice his life, but he can never be sure about it, and the understandable skepticism of others only adds to his insecurity.
Jesus the man is also tempted by sins of the flesh, specifically by the charms of his childhood sweetheart Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey) who now pays the bills by turning tricks, a spectacle the masochistic Jesus torments himself with by watching as she processes her long line of paying customers. Magdalene calls him a coward for always turning away from women, and Jesus would certainly like to be convinced… but the voices keep calling, as does the solitary appeal of the desert where he hopes, like many prophets before him, to experience a vision that will steel his resolve.
As one character in the film notes, the more demons you have inside of you, the more opportunities you have to repent. Likewise only a man who has known the allure of sin can provide repentance for all of our sins, or at least that was Kazantzakis’ premise which appealed so much to Scorsese who had, in his youth, considered a calling to the priesthood. Screenwriter Paul Schrader, still fantasizing about his dream biopic of Saul of Tarsus, was also copacetic, and this product of one of modern cinema’s greatest director-writer collaborations is genuinely moving and occasionally inspiring.
Dafoe’s humble, tortured performance is crucial to the film’s success, but Scorsese’s choice of Harvey Keitel has to be one of the most inspired instances of lunatic casting of all time. Keitel, not hiding his blustering Brooklyn accent one bit, embodies Judas as a warrior for Israeli freedom (a Zealot) and Jesus’ fiercest friends, a dynamo that powers the Son of Man through the moments when his energy flags and when divine inspiration fails him. Put simply, this Judas kicks ass and doesn’t bother to take names. In the film, Judas’ betrayal is actually by Jesus’ request, a necessary development if the Messiah is to die on the cross and save the world.
For this any many other reasons, Scorsese’s film was considered controversial long before its release. Adhering to their time-tested policy of blissful ignorance, so-called religious leaders declared it blasphemous sight unseen and even offered (though perhaps only as an empty gesture) to buy the rights to the film so they could destroy the negative before the movie could ever poison the minds of innocent viewers. Fortunately, Universal declined.
The key sticking point, besides having the temerity to show Jesus as flawed (i.e. fully human), is Jesus’ “Last Temptation.” Dying on the cross, Jesus is visited by what he thinks is his guardian angel who informs him that God has chosen to end his suffering, that he is not truly the Son of God, and that he can now live his life as a man, wed Mary Magdalene, and have children. And so he does, leaving the cross and plans of redemption behind him. The point lost on the witless protesters was that by ultimately rejecting his greatest desire in order to return to the cross, Jesus’ sacrifice was that much keener. No matter to the rabble – it wasn’t in the Scriptures and therefore wasn’t “real,” and therefore must be burned. In the film, however, the moment when Jesus chooses for a second time to suffer the agony of crucifixion renders him far more heroic than any of the white-washed Biblical epics ever could.
I question the decision to end with the crucifixion, however. If Jesus doesn’t return from the dead, then he really was just another in a long line of whackos with Messianic fever dreams. I guess Scorsese and Schrader figure that viewers know how the story will wrap up, but you could, if you wish, view it as an ambiguous finale. Is he, after all, just another man who suffered one last grand delusion?
The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. “Last Temptation” was originally released on SD by Criterion in 2000. Unfortunately, I do not own it as a point of reference, but I have no doubt that this 1080p transfer represents a meaningful upgrade. The contrast levels are sharp with particularly deep and rich black levels that enhance several of the moodier-lit sequences (cinematographer Michael Ballhaus was, as usual, at the top of his game). Image resolution is sharp though not at the razor-sharp level of Criterion’s best Blu-rays, but the level of detail in close-ups is quite pleasing.
The DTS Master Audio-HD 5.1 soundtrack is very dynamic, creating a sense of depth and space in the crowd sequences with jeering or muttering voices coming at us from every level. Peter Gabriel’s much-admired score also gets a sense of heft and resonance that it deserves with bass levels really booming. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.
All of the extras have been imported from the 2000 SD release.
The film is accompanied with a feature-length commentary track by Scorsese, Dafoe, Paul Schrader and writer Jay Cocks who was uncredited on the film. The commentaries were recorded separately and edited together so it’s a little jumpy but with this collection of personalities, it can’t help but be interesting.
The other extras are fairly meager. The BD includes an “On Location in Morocco” featurette with scouting/production footage recorded by Scorsese (on VHS, no less – 16 min.) We also get an interview with Peter Gabriel (12 min.) recorded in 1996 in New York City; this comes with a text introduction and a photo gallery of the traditional instruments used for the score. There are also a few stills galleries including costume sketches by costume designer Jean-Pierre Delifer, publicity stills by photographer Mario Tursi, and some research images Scorsese drew on.
The slim fold-out insert booklet includes an updated version (w/ mention of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”) of the essay by film critic David Ehrenstein that was included with the 2000 SD release.
Criterion’s high-def upgrade doesn’t offer anything new in the way of extras, and while the new transfer looks great, it’s not a total knockout, so it might not be a must-upgrade for those who own the previous SD. Regardless, Scorsese’s film remains one of the finest and most personal recountings of the life and death of Jesus, and you certainly don’t need to be a believer to appreciate the film.