It isn’t hard to discern the attraction Nikos Kazantzakis’s 1953 novel The Last Temptation of Christ must have held for Martin Scorsese. Kazantzakis presents his Jesus (in keeping, it might be added, with the most orthodox of theologies) as fully human. To be human, for Kazantzakis, means to be prey to doubt, racked with guilt, and tormented by conflicting inner voices. Scorsese films tend to focus on similarly conflicted protagonists, like Harvey Keitel’s Charlie in Mean Streets, hard-pressed to reconcile the demands of friends and family, not to mention the dictates of organized religion, with their own private moralities or value systems.
In a quotation that prefaces The Last Temptation of Christ, Kazantzakis writes of “the merciless battle between the spirit and the flesh,” and the soul is “the arena where these two armies have clashed and met.” The film opens mid-conflict, as it were, with an overhead shot of Jesus (Willem Dafoe) writhing on the floor in pain, while on the soundtrack the sole instance of voiceover narration allows him to speak directly to his condition with a terse, poetic immediacy. Such a first-person perspective isn’t entirely unprecedented, especially in literature, where Norman Mailer’s The Gospel According to the Son springs to mind, but it’s certainly a far cry from bibilical biopic fare like The Greatest Story Ever Told or even Nicholas Ray’s more intimate King of Kings. (Excellent as he is in the role, Dafoe doesn’t exactly buck the tradition of a blue-eyed Jesus either.)
This narrative strategy is never repeated, and so the film settles into a more distanced handling of events. A carpenter who builds crosses for the Romans to crucify fellow Jews, this Jesus courts divine hatred out of a secret conviction that God has a plan for him. As a result, he has spurned the affections of Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey). His collaboration with the Romans has also drawn the ire of the Zealots, who have sent Judas (Keitel in a curly red wig) to kill him. After what amounts to a cheeky retcon, the narrative proceeds along more recognized routes: detailing Jesus’s sojourn in the desert, his ministry, sayings and miracles, his betrayal, trial under Pontius Pilate (David Bowie), and execution.
Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader, following Kazntzakis’s lead, consistently find ways to freshen up canonical stories. What’s elided is often as important as what’s included: Witness the attempted stoning of Mary Magdalene, with Dafoe working the crowd like a vaudeville standup, and never once uttering the stock line, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” Incidental flavors of exotica like facial tattoos and wedding rituals (supplementary materials attest to the research Scorsese and Schrader put in) add spice to the proceedings. That the film remains consistently engaging can be attributed equally to Scorsese’s characteristically bold direction, longtime collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker’s distinctive editing, often cutting on rapid movement like a fast zoom or snap pan, Michael Ballhaus’s earthy cinematography, and Peter Gabriel’s plaintive, haunting score.
The focus of much of the furor that surrounded the film when it came out in 1988 stems from the final act: an extended excursus that lets Jesus off the hook—or nail, as the case may be—as a would-be Messiah, weds him to Mary Magdalene, and, after her death, finds him an aging patriarch engaged in a ménage-a-trois with Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus. Of course, this is only the last of Jesus’s satanic temptations, as promised by the film’s very title: To remain merely human, to pass along the cup of suffering, to attain the height of domestic content, turns out to be the apple of knowledge proffered by an angelic-seeming little girl (Juliette Caton).
Not until he’s on his deathbed, Jerusalem burning in the distance, does Jesus realize his error, prompted by an indignant Judas. Crawling abjectly back up Golgotha, Jesus assumes his rightful place with a conclusive “It is accomplished.” Only the most blinkered and sclerotic dogmatist could find basis for outrage in what is, all told, a deeply felt attempt to imaginatively portray the all-too-human clashes in the soul of their religion’s redeemer.
Criterion’s 1080p transfer is a marked improvement over their previous standard-def edition. The Blu-ray finally does justice to Michael Ballhaus’s staggering, sensuous cinematography. The biggest differences will be noticed during nighttime desert scenes that fully capture deep and dense black levels, thus dodging macroblocking issues that dogged the DVD, and the titular last temptation sequence, where Martin Scorsese replicates famous paintings by some of the old masters, imbuing his images with strikingly verdant greens and luminous washes of light. Textures, facial features, and fine details are sharply rendered throughout. The dynamic, immersive 5.1 Master Audio track, a sizeable step up from the lossy DVD track, puts you smack in the middle of crowded scenes, and really delivers Peter Gabriel’s groundbreaking score, from its lower registers of synthesized drone to upper octaves of anguished tribal ululations.
Ported over from the 2000 DVD, this brace of supplements isn’t the most thorough-going Criterion has ever assembled, but what’s here is more than welcome. The audio commentary track features Scorsese, Willem Dafoe, screenwriter Paul Schrader, and uncredited contributor Jay Cocks, recorded separately and stitched together in post, as was Criterion’s wont back in the day. Scorsese talks about the film’s beleaguered gestation period (originally intended as his follow-up to The King of Comedy, the film went into an abortive preproduction in 1983), and its even more fractious eventual reception at the hands of the religious right, as well as the research he conducted in an effort to maximize the flavor of authenticity. Schrader discusses the daunting prospect of boiling Nikos Kazantzakis’s dense novel down to its essential core, and along the way Jay Cocks points out the contributions he made to the script after Schrader departed the scene to film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. All too infrequently, Dafoe interjects some entertaining on-set anecdotes.
An interview with Gabriel from 1996 delves into the musician’s thoughts and influences when composing the score, an innovative blend of world music and drone rock that’s influenced countless subsequent films, and also provides still photos of many of the indigenous instruments used. Scorsese’s location production footage, shot on a camcorder, runs about 15 minutes, offering an enticing glimpse into the film’s Moroccan production facilities and sets, and capturing some of the cast and crew in a flippant mood, literally so when Harvey Keitel flips Scorsese’s camera off. There are galleries of publicity and production stills from photographer Mario Tursi, as well as research materials Scorsese used during production. The booklet is a bit slender, lacking much in the way of glossy illustration, though it does contain an insightful essay from critic David Ehrenstein, especially good on the hypocritical right-wing uproar that surrounded the film’s release, and the ways in which Mel Gibson’s torture porn tractate The Passion of the Christ sought to counteract The Last Temptation of Christ’s humanist virtues.
The significant boost to The Last Temptation of Christ’s image and sound quality alone makes an upgrade to Criterion’s Blu-ray sorely tempting.