17th Apr2019

‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Barbara Hershey, Michael Been, Verna Bloom, Harry Dean Stanton | Written by Paul Schrader | Directed by Martin Scorsese

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After The Color of Money had proven a box office hit, Martin Scorsese shifted his attention a couple of thousand years, to the life and death of Jesus Christ (Willem Dafoe). The ultimate superhero origin story, The Last Temptation of Christ focuses on the Nazarene as he moves from carpentry into public speaking, through a life of celebrity, and ultimately to his death and apotheosis on the cross.

This being Scorsese working from a Paul Schrader script, it is no straight-up Bible story. Based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ 1955 novel, the focus here is on the human aspects of the man: the doubt and desire; the rage and the covetousness. The psychological impact, if you will, of coming to terms with the revelation that you are the son of God.

The milestones of Jesus’ life are all here – the Judean Desert, Mary Magdalene, the Cleansing of the Temple et al – except we are seeing these events from a very human, very relatable perspective. This involves sequences where Christ is tempted toward the mortal life, including consummating a marriage to Mary Magdalene. Schrader’s script is determinedly down-to-earth and direct, stripping away potential ambiguity and firmly clarifying its metaphors. It is a script for all.

Unsurprisingly, The Last Temptation of Christ was hugely controversial among some religious hardliners, and it remains banned in certain countries even today. Naturally, this is a bland misunderstanding of the message and purpose of the film, which if anything reinforces the image of Jesus and actively underlines his status. That his sacrifice – and thus his elevation – was precisely because he resisted the temptations of a regular, mortal existence seems to have been lost on some.

Three decades on, the ethnically-insensitive casting is probably the most jarring aspect. We get Harvey Keitel playing Judas Iscariot, with a thick New York brogue; David Bowie as Pontius Pilate; Barbara Hershey as Mary Magdalene; Harry Dean Stanton as Paul of Tarsus; and there’s Dafoe, whiter than white in the title role. Meanwhile, brown faces are reserved for background noise only: baying crowds and weeping cripples.

But it wasn’t ethnic accuracy that concerned the religious right the first time around – it was the content. Specifically, the idea of humanising Jesus. Personally, I’ve always found this approach deeply moving and eminently relatable. Why wouldn’t a man be overwhelmed and beset by doubt and self-denial upon realising he is destined to be the Messiah? This is the element that Dafoe sells so splendidly. In Christ’s speeches, he shows a persuasive confidence and charisma; and, paradoxically, in reflective moments of ambivalence, he nails (no pun intended) the entirely plausible notion that the greatest passion lies within the self.

There are links to Scorsese and Schrader’s Taxi Driver here: the lone male, tormented by the corporeal evils of the world around him, beset by inner turmoil and confusion, searching for a meaningful way out. The difference is that Travis Bickle’s journey was toward hate, and Jesus’ toward love. Still, despite the dramatically different settings, Scorsese and long-time collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker deliver a similar sense of a fever dream. This is no staid biopic; it’s about Jesus the rebel and the rabble-rouser, and this is reflected in the inventive cinematography and raucous editing.

Scorsese has periodically returned to the theme of religion with films like 1997’s Kundun and 2016’s Silence, but I still feel that The Last Temptation of Christ is the strongest and the most stirring. The only parts that have really dated are the aforementioned casting choices (let’s be honest, it’s a gangster movie cast) and the use of Peter Gabriel’s synth-tacular music (for which, in fairness, he was nominated at the Golden Globes). Otherwise, it’s a timeless piece of work, and one of the director’s best.

DIRECTOR-APPROVED SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES:

  • Restored high-definition digital transfer, supervised and approved by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and editor Thelma Schoonmaker, with a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack by supervising sound editor Skip Lievsay
  • Audio commentary featuring director Martin Scorsese, actor Willem Dafoe, and writers Paul Schrader and Jay Cocks
  • Galleries of production stills, research materials, and costume designs
  • Location production footage shot by Scorsese
  • Interview with composer Peter Gabriel, with a stills gallery of traditional instruments used in the score
  • PLUS: An essay by film critic David Ehrenstein.

The Last Temptation of Christ is out on Criterion Blu-ray now.

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