Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: The Last Temptation of Christ: Criterion (1988)
Studio Line: The Criterion Collection/Home Vision

At last, Martin Scorsese's most personal masterpiece can be viewed outside of the controversy it engendered, and seen for what it is: A 15 year labor of love. Nikos Kazantzakis' landmark novel comes to breathtaking life in this moving and spiritual film. The all-star cast includes Harvey Keitel, Barbara Hershey, Harry Dean Stanton, David Bowie, and Willem Dafoe as Jesus. Criterion is proud to present this cinematic treasure in an exclusive director approved special edition.

Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Paul Greco, Steve Shill, Verna Bloom, Barbara Hershey.
Academy Awards: Nominated for Best Director, 1989.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio English DD 5.1; subtitles none; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 30 chapters; rated R; 163 min.; $39.95; street date 4/25/00.
Supplements: Audio Commentary by Martin Scorsese, Willem Dafoe, Paul Schrader, and Jay Cocks; An Extensive Collection of Research materials, Production Stills, and Costume Designs; Location Production Footage, Shot by Scorsese; Video Interview with Composer Peter Gabriel, plus a Stills Gallery of the Instruments Used in the Film.
Purchase: DVD | Novel - Nikos Kazantzakis | Score soundtrack - Peter Gabriel

Picture/Sound/Extras: B+/A/B+

Almost twelve years later, I still remember all of the controversy generated by Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ. It probably didn't hurt that I was on vacation in Los Angeles when the movie appeared - that factor likely doubled the amount of public attention - but I don't think it would have mattered where I was at the time; the ruckus was loud and intense.

And entirely predictable. More publicly-religious types thrive on controversy and being able to stir up people with tales of outrage and indignation, and what better way to do so than by attacking - sight unseen, of course - a movie that allegedly depicted Jesus - gasp! - acting like a human being! Granted, the film was supposedly to show Jesus doing the nasty, and it seemed incredibly unlikely that would slip by without a fight, but the knee-jerk reaction remained strong and stupid.

I truly despise emotionally-based, uninformed opinions (though some might think each of my reviews to fall along those lines, but nuts to them!) and that was what TLTOC encountered. Ironically, that same summer, I had a fight with a friend due to his own little reflexive negativity. If I recall correctly, there had been an incident that July during which the US shot down an Iranian plane. My friend and I were on a quick vacation at the time, and he'd been out on the patio smoking a cigarette when I had turned on the TV and started to hear about this news; this was the first he or I knew about it.

When he walked back in after receiving his nicotine fix, he literally heard nothing more than "US military shoots down Iranian plane" before he spat out, "That (expletive-deleted) Reagan! What the (expletive-deleted) has he done now?!"

Neither then nor now did I support President Reagan - though I also enjoy jelly beans - but I found my friend's reaction to be ridiculously simple-minded. He knew virtually no facts about the event and yet he already pinned all the blame on the president based on very incomplete information. At that point, it didn't matter whether Reagan himself was behind the turret of the US jet or if the president had died earlier that day; he knew almost nothing of what had occurred but had already formed a judgment about the event.

That's the kind of reaction that greeted TLTOC and pretty much any other movie that treats religious icons in any manner other than with the greatest reverence. Granted, I'm sure Scorsese knew he'd encounter such controversy well before he made the movie - who knows, maybe he even hoped for it as free publicity - but I still find the outcry to have been hypocritical and absurd.

Largely overshadowed in all the ruckus was the movie itself; was it even worth the angst? That's hard for me to say. I'm not a particularly religious person, so it seemed unlikely the film would offend me in any way, and it most definitely doesn't.

Actually, the most "blasphemous" parts of the movie are its most compelling. That's not because the film becomes seedy or offers any gratuitous thrills - anyone looking for some cheap jollies will go away disappointed - but mainly because those scenes diverge the most from the standard legend of Christ. At times TLTOC seems a bit disjointed, largely because much of it looks like Jesus' greatest hits. We see a lot of material that seems familiar to even someone like me who really doesn't know all that much about these stories. Scorsese has altered the tone and the focus - clearly this Jesus is not the flawless figure usually observed - but I couldn't help but feel a sense of deja vu at times.

The final act, however - the titular "last temptation" itself - really works well, however. That's not to say that the preceding parts of the film weren't also good, but I didn't think that TLTOC really lived up to its promise until that point. I guess that makes sense since the climax virtually summarizes the entire point of the film

At the risk of sounding odd, I have to say that I felt too much of the focus was on Jesus himself. Again, this makes sense - it's not called The 75th Temptation of Bob - but I didn't think the supporting characters received enough development. At times it appears that Scorsese's depending on the public's imagination about these personas to flesh them out for him, a factor made more difficult by the unusual approaches taken to the parts; these aren't quite your stock Bible characters. I don't want to get into those alterations too much since discussion of them may spoil parts of the movie for you, but I would have liked to have seen more exposition and screen time for the secondary characters.

Despite my criticisms, TLTOC remains a strong and powerful film. Willem Dafoe offers a terrific portrayal of Jesus himself. The role clearly was intensely demanding; Dafoe had to go through radical emotional changes in the part and is onscreen virtually the entire movie. The supporting cast also seems good, though it does take some time to get used to actors like Harvey Keitel and Harry Dean Stanton in this sort of film. Surprisingly, I thought David Bowie's turn as Pontius Pilate fell a little flat; I'm a rabid Bowie fan, and I think he's one of the best rock star actors, but he seems uninspired here.

The Last Temptation of Christ isn't Martin Scorsese's best film, but it's probably his most courageous and heart-felt. The picture has some flaws but generally provides a compelling and thought-provoking look at the later life of Christ. It's not a movie to bring out for parties, but it warrants attention nonetheless.

The DVD:

The Last Temptation of Christ appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Though it possesses a few flaws, overall the picture of this film looks absolutely terrific.

Sharpness is the DVD's strongest point. From start to finish, the image looks incredibly crisp and well-defined with virtually no soft or fuzzy portions. Moiré effects and jagged edges are largely not an issue, but I did find mild artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV. The print itself offers a moderate amount of flaws. Light grain appears on occasion, and white and black speckles pop up fairly regularly. I also noticed an odd blue streak that ran down the screen for a split-second late in the movie. Otherwise, I saw no scratches or hairs or more significant flaws.

Colors seemed nicely accurate and natural, with no signs of bleeding or noise. Black levels appeared deep and dark, with shadow detail only encountering sporadic problems during some of the night scenes; for example, when the serpent talks to Jesus, the snake seemed overly dark and hard to discern. However, that complaint is minor, and even the fairly frequent print flaws paled in comparison to the high quality of most of the picture; it really looks gorgeous for the most part. All through the film, I waffled between awarding it an "A-" or a "B+". I went with the lower grade just because of the frequency of the flaws - that blue streak sealed it for me - but I want to emphasize that it was a close call.

I also spent a lot of time debating my grade for the audio quality of The Last Temptation of Christ but in that case, I went with the higher mark. Why? Because of the old age-related curve. TLTOC may only be 12-years-old, but that's a long time in movie sound technology; it predates the common use of formats like Dolby Digital and DTS and arrived at a time when Dolby Surround mixes were the standard.

As such, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of TLTOC got a minor "age-curve" bump to a solid "A", but even if the film came from 1999, I still would have given it at least an "A-"; this is a surprisingly terrific mix. The soundfield is very wide and engaging and provides a remarkably full experience. To be frank, I didn't expect much from the audio; this seemed like it'd be a quiet little film that probably would barely escape monaural status. How wrong I was! Peter Gabriel's score pumps from all five channels for much of the movie, and effects also are well-localized and distinct. Even during the quiet scenes, the mix provides strong use of ambient audio, and the track clearly utilizes a lot of split surround pieces, something I also didn't expect. This soundfield really added a lot of life to the film.

The quality seems very strong as well. At times, slight edginess affected the dialogue, but this issue was minor and speech always sounded natural and intelligible. Effects were clean and realistic, and the music appeared just spectacular; Gabriel's rhythmic score really cranks the story up a notch and it seems very clear and vivid on this DVD. At times, a thin layer of tape hiss appears, but this occurs rarely and briefly. All in all, the audio contributes greatly to the success of the film.

Before I move on to the supplemental features, I want to address one very unusual aspect of this DVD. Many viewers have popped the disc in their players and discovered a fullscreen image; this happened to me. "Whoops!" I thought. "I must have left the player set to 16X9 mode!" I hopped to the menu and saw that this wasn't the case.

Instead, the problem stemmed from the fact I had my player set to "pan and scan" instead of "letterbox" in a different section. From what I understand, this exists to allow players to use a potential "pan and scan on the fly" feature that has apparently never been utilized for DVDs; it would take letterboxed images and perform basic pan and scan functions on them.

The existence of this "pan and scan on the fly" on a Criterion DVD - the original "sticklers for the correct aspect ratio" folks - seemed odd. Apparently it occurred due to a mistake in authoring of the DVD. On their website, Criterion have a link to an explanation of what happened, but it doesn't work, so I couldn't present their formal discussion of it. However, I have heard it will be disabled on future pressings, so your copy may not have it. Whether that's good or bad is up to you, but if you prefer fullscreen movies - even if they're poorly implemented pan and scan jobs, which is probably the case here - the first edition is the one to get.

Back to the regularly scheduled review. As for the supplemental features, the most interesting one is definitely the audio commentary from Scorsese, writers Paul Schrader and Jay Cocks, and actor Dafoe. I always have loved Criterion's style of audio commentary; they usually edit together relevant statements from a variety of participants, and their tracks almost always seem more coherent and consistently engaging than most.

TLTOC's track is no exception. All four men provide a lot of information and I learned a great deal about the project. We get insight into how the film got to the screen and what the filmmakers wanted to do, and most aspects of the production are covered. Most interestingly, we hear different discussions of the controversy. It's a long track for a long movie, but even so, I wanted to hear more; it's a terrific commentary.

A few other features appear on this DVD. One cool one: 15 and a half minutes of Scorsese's "video journal" that he shot on the set. We see brief glimpses of various aspects of the production, culminating with the best part: shots of the re-creation of the crucifixion. It's one thing to hear Dafoe describe the unpleasantness of this part of the filming, but it's another to see it. My only complaint about this section is that it's too short; I'd love to see more of these tapes.

Another video segment presents a nearly twelve minute 1996 interview with composer Peter Gabriel. This piece provides some mildly interesting details, but old Pete's a dry interview and the program seems a bit dull. This area also includes a brief text introduction to Pete and his participation, plus we find 20 still photos of Gabriel, other musicians and some of the different instruments used for the score. (By the way, Pete, when's the new album gonna arrive? It's been nearly eight years since Us; are you waiting for Jesus to return to give us a new release??!!)

More stillframes appear in the remaining sections. "Scorsese's Visual Research" provides a wealth of information about the sources the director used to inform his film. A great deal of text from "The Biblical Archaeology Review" details historical facts about the time period in which the movie takes place, while "National Geographic" shows us the inspiration for Barbara Hershey's tattoos. "Paintings" displays some artwork Scorsese used as a background for the picture's visual look, while "Books and Films" offers a list of titles Scorsese recommends for those interested in more information on the subject. (Who would've guessed that Porky's would be in that roster?) All in all, this section adds a lot to the discussion of the film, especially through the historical information.

"Costume Design" presents 23 sketches from designer Jean-Pierre Delifer. These are accompanied by photos of the final results on the actors. I suppose this section provides some okay information, but it did little for me, mostly because a lot of the outfits look very similar.

"Production and Publicity Stills" includes exactly what the title describes. We get nearly 450 still pictures from the film. I liked the candid shots from the set itself, but the interface doesn't work well. There's no form of index for the photos, so to get to the "behind the scenes" stills you have to laboriously navigate through 280 frames of pictures that essentially are just shots from the movie itself. Criterion should have divided up the images so that different areas are more easily accessible. On a CAV laserdisc, it's not a problem; you could just "search" ahead a certain number of frames. It's much slower on a DVD, unfortunately, and a disc with so many stillframes really needs a better interface.

Finally, the DVD's booklet features some excellent liner notes from film critic David Ehrenstein. This DVD appears to be a complete port of the 1998 laserdisc release. Since I never owned that title, I can't state this based on my own experience, but I did a little research and can find no evidence of any missing materials.

Which makes the Criterion edition of The Last Temptation Of Christ yet another LD to DVD bargain, but even without that price incentive, it would still make for a fine package. The movie itself certainly has flaws, but it remains a courageous and compelling look at the most famous man in history. (No, I don't mean Mr. T.) The DVD itself presents outstanding sound plus a very fine picture and some terrific supplements. The Last Temptation Of Christ clearly isn't for everyone, but anyone with an interest in the films of Martin Scorsese or with an open mind toward the subject matter should definitely give it a spin.

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