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The Last Temptation of Christ: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) movie poster The Last Temptation of Christ

Theatrical Release: August 12, 1988 / Running Time: 164 Minutes / Rating: R / Songs List

Director: Martin Scorsese / Writers: Nikos Kazantzakis (novel); Paul Schrader (screenplay); Jay Cocks, Martin Scorsese (screenplay - uncredited)

Cast: Willem Dafoe (Jesus Christ), Harvey Keitel (Judas Iscariot), Barbara Hershey (Mary Magdalene), Harry Dean Stanton (Saul/Paul), David Bowie (Pontius Pilate), Verna Bloom (Mary, Mother of Jesus), Barry Miller (Jeroboam), Irvin Kershner (Zebedee), Andre Gregory (John the Baptist), Juliette Caton (Girl Angel), Roberts Blossom (Aged Master), Gary Barasaba (Andrew, Apostle), Victor Argo (Peter Apostle), Michael Been (John, Apostle), Paul Herman (Phillip, Apostle), John Lurie (James, Apostle), Leo Burmester (Nathaniel, Apostle), Peggy Gormley (Martha, Sister of Lazarus), Randy Danson (Mary, Sister of Lazarus), Tomas Arana (Lazarus), Alan Rosenberg (Thomas, Apostle)

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In the 1970s, cinema was defined by young directors making names for themselves: Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and so on. Early on, the decade had been populated with small, gritty, mature films that excited audiences and critics alike. By the end of the '70s, commercial filmmaking had taken ahold with such event pictures as Jaws, Superman, and, most of all, Star Wars.

The blockbuster only grew in popularity in the 1980s, forcing directors to either adapt or fade away. Lucas and Spielberg, who had essentially invented the form in its modern incarnation, dominated with their joint and separate big budget spectacles and sequels. Coppola and Bogdanovich mostly resisted those sensibilities and soon found themselves much less relevant. Scorsese, meanwhile, tried a little bit of both. In fact, he tried a little bit of everything in the 1980s.

Despite the industry shifting away from Scorsese's tastes, the '80s began promisingly enough for the filmmaker. With encouragement from his repeat collaborator Robert De Niro,
Scorsese had rebounded from the depression and dangerous cocaine habit that had followed the pair's 1977 musical flop New York, New York. Scorsese and De Niro poured everything they had into Raging Bull and the Jake LaMotta biopic was met with acclaim, a host of award nominations, and some wins. The director and star's departure of a follow-up, 1983 black comedy The King of Comedy, was more coolly received.

After that, Scorsese began working on The Last Temptation of Christ, an adaptation of a controversial 1953 Greek novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. Scorsese had been referred to the book in the early 1970s by his Boxcar Bertha star Barbara Hershey. Having considered it over the years and optioned it in the late 1970s, Scorsese was about to start shooting the film for Paramount Pictures with newcomer Aidan Quinn in the title role. Mere weeks before the cameras would roll, though, Paramount pulled the plug, citing pressure from religious groups and concern over the ballooning budget for the proposed Israel shoot.

Jesus of Nazareth (Willem Dafoe) stands up to the angry mob about to stone his prostitute friend. Though initially skeptical, many Jews come to follow Jesus and listen carefully to his every word.

With those plans dashed, the director experimented with different things. He made perhaps his least characteristic film in the super-low budget, surreal New York black comedy After Hours (1985). Then he directed The Color of Money (1986), a mainstream, impersonal sequel to 1961's The Hustler. Riding the wave of Tom Cruise superstardom from Top Gun, the film was financially successful and won Paul Newman a long-overdue Oscar. It would also clear the path for Scorsese to get Last Temptation off the ground, which he would, after directing a Season 1 episode of Spielberg's NBC anthology series "Amazing Stories" and the music video for Michael Jackson's "Bad."

Last Temptation was now a Universal movie and Jesus was now to be played by Willem Dafoe, fresh off his Oscar-nominated breakout performance in 1986 Best Picture Platoon. The controversy surrounding the project had certainly not subsided, but the director had enough clout to proceed on a low budget with a script attributed to his Taxi Driver and Raging Bull scribe Paul Schrader.

After opening with a personal quote from Kazantzakis, the film makes clear that it is not based on the Gospels but on the author's fictional novel. Nonetheless, for much of its first three-quarters, you see that it could very well be based on the New Testament scriptures. We don't get the story of Christ's birth or his one childhood adventure, but we do see him assuming his role of the utmost importance. Here, Jesus is not merely a carpenter, but a maker of crucifixion crosses. Tormented by his unique lineage, Jesus is approached by Judas (a curly, red-bearded Harvey Keitel), who has been sent to kill him. Instead, the two surmise that Jesus has a greater calling, namely to spread God's message of love.

Standing outside Lazarus' tomb, Jesus (Willem Dafoe) resurrects the recently deceased man. Jesus (Willem Dafoe) asks a large favor (betrayal) of his closest apostle, the curly-haired, red-bearded Judas Iscariot (Harvey Keitel).

Judas is the first of many disciples, as Jesus sets out to preach God's word and stirs many an initially skeptical heart. At this point, we're treated to some of Jesus' greatest hits. He stops the stoning of his acquaintance, prostitute Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey, fittingly enough), quieting an angry mob by asking that only those without sin throw the rocks. He heals the blind. He turns water into wine. He even raises Lazarus from the dead.

But it's not all miracles and hugs for Jesus. Shortly after being baptized by John the Baptist (Andre Gregory), Jesus draws a circle in the desert and confronts his demons as part of a ten-day fast. He is visited and tested by a snake, a lion, and a flame. He returns to his followers having determined that the path to salvation is one of love.

By now, Jesus and his large and growing entourage are like rock stars, especially when accompanied by an eclectic, worldly score composed by Genesis frontman turned solo artist Peter Gabriel. They expel the money changers from the temple, while arousing some charges of blasphemy. Jesus persuades his right-hand apostle to betray him and turn him over to the Roman authorities, a plan Judas reluctantly agrees to. This casts the Last Supper and Judas' infamous kiss in a new light.

While you might simply expect this to lead to the familiar Easter narrative of Christ's brutal crucifixion and prophesied resurrection, this is where The Last Temptation most departs from the writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and where both Kazantzakis' novel and Scorsese's filming of it incense certain Christians. Nailed to the cross and wearing the Crown of Thorns, Jesus is visited by a pre-teen girl (Juliette Caton) who identifies herself as his guardian angel. She reveals that Jesus' father has heard his doubts and will spare him in the same way that Abraham's nearly-sacrificed son was. She accompanies Christ as he leads the rest of his life as an ordinary human, down a path of marriage, fatherhood, and, eventually, old age. This calm timeline, however, is not all that it seems.

In a role originally intended for Sting, David Bowie plays Pontius Pilate, the Roman judge who authorizes Christ's crucifixion. In the climactic dreamscape this young guardian angel (Juliette Caton) guides him to, Jesus (Willem Dafoe) grows old in a typical human way.

It is understandable that the novel and its filming would create fervor. How could it not, by rewriting the life of the individual at the center of one of the world's leading religions? It's hard to imagine a scenario where the words "blasphemy" and "sacrilege" are more appropriate. And yet, Scorsese's film at least (I haven't read the Kazantzakis novel) is far from the insulting and profane work that some detractors would lead you to believe.

Kazantzakis, who is better known for his earlier novel Zorba the Greek, is categorized as a Greek agnostic on Wikipedia, but that appears to be an oversimplification of his lifelong exploration of religion and spirituality, which included six months in a monastery.
The Greek Orthodox Church excommunicated the author for his novel, which wound up on the Catholic Church's list of banned books. His story is no questioning of the Messiah or the faith built upon his death and resurrection, but a contemplation of the great sacrifice at the foundation of Christianity. Christians believe that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine in his over thirty years on Earth. Though he did not commit sin, he did suffer the pains and temptations of a mortal man. That fascinating duality and the ensuing contradictions are at the heart of this story, which if anything frames Christ's sacrifice in terms his followers can more easily relate to and appreciate.

As if you couldn't tell from the themes of his work, Scorsese is a Roman Catholic and he inevitably brings his convictions to this artistic film. His Last Temptation is at all times reverent of its hero. Though creatively staged, the oft-retold episodes from Jesus' life are not altogether remarkable. But several times the director delivers powerful moments which are downright transcendent. These mostly arrive in the latter portions, dealing with the crucifixion and then this arresting what-if scenario.

There is some impudence in trying to improve on "the greatest story ever told", but then who among us isn't already familiar with Jesus' life, whether or not you hear selections of it on a yearly, weekly, or even daily basis. The imaginative original fictional aspects, as shocking as they might be to some degree, unquestionably strengthen the biblical core at the heart of the film. You can draw parallels to Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, It's a Wonderful Life, and the many derivative tales inspired by them, for Last Temptation does pack a dramatic punch in a similar fashion, regardless of what meaning or lack thereof Christ's redemption holds for you.

Banned in a number of countries and met with a fiery Molotov cocktail attack in Paris and other protests throughout France, Last Temptation remains one of the most controversial films ever made. Unlike Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ sixteen years later, the controversy did not translate to box office success. Grossing $8.3 M in just over 100 theaters at its widest release, Last Temptation was merely the 97th highest-grossing film of 1988. It did receive mostly favorable reviews, however, and earned Scorsese his second Best Director Academy Award nomination (he lost to Rain Man's Barry Levinson).

The hot button nature of the film led Blockbuster Video and other stores not to carry Last Temptation, but the days of that meaning anything are long gone. The film entered The Criterion Collection on laserdisc in 1997 (with spine #352) and on DVD in 2000. This week, well in time for Easter, Criterion gives the film its Blu-ray debut, retaining the spine #70 of the DVD release.

The Last Temptation of Christ: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Details

1.85:1 Widescreen
5.1 DTS-HD MA (English)
Subtitles: English
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: March 13, 2012
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Suggested Retail Price: $39.95
Clear Keepcase
Still available on DVD ($39.95 SRP; 2000)
Also available as Universal DVD ($14.98 SRP; 2012),
Alliance DVD ($14.95 SRP), and on Amazon Instant Video


The $7 million production budget at Universal was less than half of what was supposed to be in place over at Paramount four years earlier. As such, The Last Temptation was a bit more rushed and less ambitious a shoot than Scorsese may have envisioned. Nonetheless, the 1.85:1 presentation is quite stately. The colors are a bit pale and there are a few grainy places, but otherwise, the Blu-ray's transfer delights with its clean element and excellent detail. The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio is even more impressive. Predating multi-channel mixes as a standard, this engaging surround soundtrack delivers a surprising amount of atmosphere and directionality, in addition to tasteful arrangements of Gabriel's appropriately flavorful music.

One of these men is not like the other; director Martin Scorsese is photographed next to his robed leading men Harvey Keitel and Willem Dafoe in this production still. Even with the Crown of Thorns on his head, Willem Dafoe manages a smile in Martin Scorsese's behind-the-scenes piece "On Location in Morocco."


Though the name Criterion conjures the notion of a set loaded with supplements, that often hasn't been the case, especially in the earlier days of the boutique line's DVDs. As on laserdisc and DVD, Last Temptation is joined by a modest collection of extras, less than you would expect for a film of its reputation and for being Criterion's only Scorsese title.

First and foremost is an audio commentary from 1997 by Martin Scorsese, Willem Dafoe,
and screenwriters Paul Schrader and Jay Cocks. They are recorded separately, with Scorsese's remarks naturally claiming the majority of the airtime. This is a fascinating discussion that takes us deep inside the fast, thin production and into the feelings, beliefs, themes, and influences that shaped it. They cover all the relevant ground around this film in a consistently engaging fashion.

On the visual front (all of which is encoded at HD resolution, despite lesser production methods), things begin with a 41-still Costume Designs gallery, which compares the sketches of Jean-Pierre Delifer to character stills from production.

A Stills and Research gallery consists of 71 production and publicity stills, followed by six images of influential religious artwork and notes.

"On Location in Morocco" (15:44) documents the film's fall 1987 production with VHS camcorder footage from Martin Scorsese himself. It is surprising the director found time and energy to film this low-tech (color flickers in and out and Scorsese shoots himself Blair Witch-style) but delightfully candid behind-the-scenes footage that takes us around the set and trailers. It is one of the most memorable extras I've ever seen.

Peter Gabriel discusses his musical contributions to "The Last Temptation of Christ" in this 1996 interview. The Criterion Collection's "Last Temptation" Blu-ray menu earns no points for creativity or sensible framing.

A Peter Gabriel section gives us "Introduction", a page of text on his musical contribution to the film. A 1996 "Interview" (12:03) allows the composer to discuss the film's music and its inspirations, his many collaborators on it, his favorite cues, as well as himself and his world music interests. Finally, a small photo gallery consists of six images plus captions of instruments used on the score and four shots of postproduction crew from editor Thelma Schoonmaker.

The most glaring omission is the film's original theatrical trailer, which is apparently included on Universal's own DVD release, which shockingly did not occur in the US until last week per the studio's 100th Anniversary celebrations.
The new disc also contains a couple of "100 Years of Universal" features on the studio's Carl Laemmle and Lew Wasserman eras.

The scored menu is an oddly-framed static photo. As a product of Criterion's unrivaled authoring skills, the disc supports both bookmarks and resuming playback of every feature.

Even the obligatory insert falls at the shallow end of the Criterion supplements pool. Half of the eight-page fold-out booklet goes to an updated version of film critic David Ehrenstein's 2000 essay "Passion Project", which primarily recalls the misguided controversy that preceded the film's theatrical release. It's more focused on attacking the right-wing detractors and Mel Gibson's Passion than in acknowledging the achievements of Scorsese's film, but it's an okay read nonetheless. The rest of the booklet supplies the usual film and disc credits and transfer information, while the inside of the clear keepcase lists chapter titles.

Jesus Christ (Willem Dafoe) pulls his bleeding sacred heart from his chest to present it to his followers as a way to convey the importance of love.


There are many faithful, respectful, traditional filmings of Jesus' story to choose from. And then there is Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ. Thoughtful, creative, controversial, and moving, this alternative take on the Gospels is one for believers and non-Christians alike to see. It requires patience and an open mind; the even slightly easily offended and those opposed to Biblical fiction will most likely not appreciate this. But it is absolutely possible, and maybe even mandatory, to view this as not an attack on but a celebration of the Christian faith.

Though light on bonus features, what's here is good and the feature presentation is no doubt the movie's best to date. Being a less comprehensive package than this film warrants, Criterion's high-priced disc may not qualify as an instant, must-buy Blu-ray, but it definitely deserves consideration from any collector of discs.

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Related Reviews:
New to Blu-ray: Hugo • La Jetιe & Sans Soleil • Corman's World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel • My Week with Marilyn • Young Adult
Directed by Martin Scorsese & Written by Paul Schrader: Taxi Driver (Blu-ray)
Religious: The Ten Commandments • The Miracle Maker • The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe
Willem Dafoe: Platoon • The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou • My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done
Harvey Keitel: Life on Mars: The Complete Series | Barbara Hershey: Black Swan • The Last Hard Men • Beaches
Harry Dean Stanton: One Magic Christmas • Escape from New York | Peter Gabriel Music: Say Anything... • WALL•E
1980s: Broadcast News • Dead Poets Society • Blood Simple.

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Reviewed March 12, 2012.

Text copyright 2012 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1988 Universal Pictures, Cineplex Odeon Films, and 1997-2012 The Criterion Collection.
Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.