Collecting Criterion – The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)


The Criterion Collection has honored all kinds of beloved cinema by making them a part of it’s library, but they’ve also spread their wings out to include movies that carry a dark cloud of controversy around them.  Many of these types of movies within the Criterion Collection include a box set devoted to the I am Curious series, which were Swedish films that were deemed pornographic and were banned for years in the United States.  Also included in the Collection are the silent documentary on Satanism, Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922), the movies of controversial Danish director Lars von Trier, and perhaps the most controversial film of all, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom (1975); a movie that I will one day brave my way through and review for this series.  Criterion does an honorable job of collecting these button-pushing movies, because regardless of the controversy that surrounds them, they still stand as cinematic touchstones and are worthy of preservation and posterity.  Given that Easter is almost upon us, I thought that I should review for you one of the most scandalous movies of all times that has also gone on to become one of Criterion’s most interesting titles; and which also fits within the religious theme of the holiday.  That film is Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).
The interesting thing about this Criterion title is that it’s the only Scorsese film that has been selected as part of the Collection.  This is probably because Scorsese’s other movies probably don’t carry the same stigma that this one does, and have found an easier time getting distribution.  The Last Temptation of Christ more than likely could only ever get released through the Criterion label because no other studio would dare claim it.  Nevertheless, I’m sure that Scorsese is quite pleased with this film’s place within the Criterion Collection, as well as he should be.  Criterion has done a masterful job of restoring the movie and giving it a proper home video release.  In the 25 years since the movie has first premiered, the controversy surrounding it has subsided, especially in the wake of the firestorm surrounding Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), so Criterion’s distribution of the film itself is far from controversial.  Of course, when watching the movie itself, it becomes very apparent why the movie sparked heated emotions in the first place.  Scorsese has always been a risk-taker, and it’s to his credit as a film director that his movies have done as well as they have.  With The Last Temptation, he was fulfilling a life-long ambition to make a film about the life of Jesus Christ, no doubt having grown up watching the great biblical epics of Hollywood’s golden era and being raised in a Catholic household.  But, making a movie like this in a different era with a reputation like what Mr. Scorsese had was going to lead to some tension no matter what, and Scorsese certainly found out how hard it was to fulfill his own dreams.
First and foremost it must be understood that the movie is not based on a scriptural source, but rather is adapted from the similarly controversial novel of the same name by Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis, the same man who wrote Zorba the Greek.  Though Nikos was always a devoted Christian author, he was nevertheless condemned by both the Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches, and his book was banned in several countries.  Despite what the Church thought of his writing, Nikos believed that he was honoring Christ by showing his humanity.  In the novel, Jesus is not depicted as an infallible deity, but rather as a passionate and troubled human being who strives to do God’s work on Earth even when doubts his own strength to accomplish it.  The Jesus in the novel remains pure and accomplishes everything he’s been entrusted to do by God, but the novel also examines the temptations that are laid out in front of him that try to pull him away from becoming the Messiah.  The final temptation shows him giving up his crucifixion and leading a normal human life; marrying Mary Magdelene, raising children, and dying at an old age.  Of course, Jesus resists the temptation and goes through with the sacrifice in the end, but the novel details the life that may have been, and this is probably what drove many religious figures to be upset.  Despite Mr. Kazantzakis’ best intentions, the idea of a fallible Christ was unacceptable to many people and sadly it lead to the author’s downfall.
Martin Scorsese was drawn to the ideas of Nikos Kazatzakis’ novel, particularly the way it looked at Christ the man, and he held onto the rights to the novel for many years, hoping to bring it to the screen himself when he had the opportunity.  Scorsese made the movie at a transitional time for him personally.  He had beaten a drug addiction that plagued most of his early career and was now going through something of a spiritual reawakening.  Most of his films during the 1980’s were markedly different in tone to his gritty crime dramas of the 70’s.  In 1983, he made the dark comedy The King of Comedy, which he then followed up with the very low budgeted dramas of After Hours (1985) and The Color of Money (1986).  The Last Temptation pushed Scorsese into even more foreign territory, since the director had never done a period film before, let alone a religious one.
While he knew that the source material was controversial, Scorsese wanted to make this movie as an affirmation of his own Catholic faith.  Indeed, watching this movie you can see Scorsese’s own view of spirituality come through, and it stays true to the scriptural teachings of Jesus Christ.  Unlike Mel Gibson’s The Passion, Scorsese did manage to secure financial backing from a major studio (Universal), albeit with a very small budget.  It was warmly received by critics, but naturally was condemned by Church organizations who didn’t understand it.  The backlash from religious viewers was so intense in fact that the movie is still banned in some countries, and one screening in Paris during it’s premiere was the scene of a terrorist attack by Christian zealots, leading to the death of one person. Suffice to say that The Last Temptation of Christ still stands as Martin Scorsese’ most polarizing film to date.  Upon viewing the movie today, the film isn’t as scandalous on the surface as it once was perceived to be, although I’m sure you still won’t hear any mention of it in religious circles.
My own impression of the movie is that it’s an intriguing, if somewhat flawed, depiction of the life of Jesus.  The most controversial elements of the movie, that being the moments of temptation laid before Jesus, are actually the strongest parts, and shows Scorsese’s knack for making challenging cinema accessible for the average viewer especially well.  The extended sequence at the end of the movie, depicting the life Jesus could’ve had if he gave up his sacrifice for humanity is especially captivating, and spells out perfectly exactly why Christ was meant to be the Savior of humanity according to scripture; a subtlety that I think a lot of religious zealots tend to overlook.  Unfortunately, Scorsese’s film is a bit on the overlong side.  Running 2 hours and 45 minutes long, the movie doesn’t have the same kind of driven pacing that Scorsese’s other movies have, and tends to drag through many of the more introspective moments of the narrative.  In addition, the movie is unfortunately dated by a terrible soundtrack, made by recording artist Peter Gabriel.  While unique, the music does feel out of place in this biblical tale, and makes many of the scenes feel like a bad 1980’s music video instead of an uplifting spiritual movie.
Where the movie does shine, however, is in it’s performances, particularly with Willem Dafoe as Jesus.  Dafoe carries this movie on his shoulders and creates a Jesus Christ that we’ve never seen before on the big screen.  I liked the way that he showed Jesus’ confusion and fear throughout his entire journey, which helps to make the character much more personable than relatable.  Now, many religious people argue that Jesus must be unknowable because he was more than just a man, but Dafoe’s performance shows that Jesus’ teachings can have more power when we understand better the person who is giving it to us.  And better yet, Dafoe’s performance has a lot of passion behind it, making Jesus captivating as a character.  When we see Jesus in this movie, we begin to understand why he was able to inspire people to follow his teachings.
The supporting cast also adds a lot to the movie, especially Harvey Keitel as a very sympathetic Judas Iscariot.  Some of the other casting can be a little random at times; like The Empire Strikes Back (1980) director Irvin Kershner showing up briefly as a stone-throwing zealot; and hold on, was that David Bowie as Pontius Pilate?  One cameo that I did find interesting was Harry Dean Stanton as religious convert Saint Paul, who manages to help even Jesus himself learn more about God’s plan.  The movie’s visual design is also spectacular in this movie.  Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus gives the film an epic scope, and helps to make the film feel big even with the limited budget.  Also, many of the trademark Scorsese touches are there, particularly in the dramatic lighting of certain scenes.  Scorsese’s unique cinematic touches throughout help to stand this movie apart from other biblical movies, particularly with one interesting technique during the crucifixion scene where the camera tilts down 90 degrees in front of Jesus on the cross, showing a sideways view of the image.  It’s a simply done trick, but it does leave a definite impression.
Criterion’s edition of the movie brings out the best of this film by giving it a spectacular restoration.  Produced through a high-definition scan from the original negative elements, the movie looks almost brand new in it’s blu-ray edition.  Thankfully Universal has kept the original negative safe in it’s vault; a religious organization called Campus Crusade for Christ once offered the studio $10 million for the negative just so they could destroy it.  Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker supervised the restoration, alongside cinematographer Ballhaus, and the film definitely looks like it reflects the artistic visions off all involved.  The score, for better or worse, does sound great in the restoration.  You’ll especially appreciate how clear the sound mix is.
The extras, while not particularly as lavish as some other Criterion titles, is nevertheless worth checking out.  First there’s a group audio commentary pieced together from interviews with Scorsese himself, along with Willem Dafoe and screenwriters Paul Schrader and Jay Cocks.  Production footage of the crew on location is also available to view in this package, which gives you the interesting insight into the making of the movie, and seeing Scorsese at work behind the camera is always interesting to watch.  It also gives you a nice idea of what it takes to make a period drama look authentic.  A brand new interview is also included with composer Peter Gabriel, as he details the influences that went into his work on the film’s score.  While I already made my feelings known about the music, it’s still interesting to hear Peter Gabriel’s methods behind his work, and what he thought of collaborating with Scorsese at the time.  Rounding out the extras is an interesting gallery of production and publicity stills.
While the controversy surrounding the movie has dissipated over time, Criterion was still taking risk keeping this movie in the public’s eye, and I give them a lot of credit for continuing to stand up for challenging works of cinema like this overall.  The Last Temptation of Christ is still a monumental work of cinematic art, and while it may not be the most enriching biblical film I’ve ever seen, or even the best example of Scorsese’s work as a director, it’s still a movie that is absolutely worth seeing.  I particularly would like to see religious organizations take another look at this film, because I think it’s more true to the spirit of Jesus’ teachings than they would like to believe.  Contrary to what they may believe, Scorsese did not make this movie because he wanted to attack Jesus’ image.  In the end, Christ does fulfill his purpose in God’s plan and goes through with his sacrifice.  What Scorsese showed us in the movie was that Jesus was also a man, and still vulnerable to the same faults as humankind.  The fact that he overcame them is what made Jesus special, and that’s what Martin Scorsese took away from his own perspective on religion.  Scorsese assures us that his movie is not scriptural but rather a dramatic interpretation of one extraordinary man’s journey through life, something which is stated before the movie’s opening credits.  Regardless of how the final movie turned out, I still thank Scorsese for taking an honest and unique approach to such a touchy subject.  The Last Temptation of Christ is still one of the most unique religious themed films ever made and it makes a worthy addition to anyone’s Criterion collection.