The Last Temptation of Christ

Willem Dafoe as Jesus Christ in The Last Temptation of Christ.
(© 1988 Universal Studios, Inc. All rights reserved.)

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The Last Temptation of Christ is arguably Martin Scorseseís most passionate work, and itís no small compliment that the Criterion Collection is honoring it with this DVD release. In addition to the film itself, the DVD contains an alternate audio track with commentary from Scorsese, actor Willem Dafoe, and screenwriters Paul Schrader and Jay Cocks. (Schrader receives sole screenwriting credit for The Last Temptation of Christ, but Scorsese and Cocks contributed numerous revisions.) Some of the other tracks are a bit academic (including a lengthy explanation of Jewish burial practices), and the interview with composer Peter Gabriel is a snooze. But the movie shines brighter than ever thanks to an enhanced Dolby Digital soundtrack and a widescreen presentation. This DVD communicates the passion of Jesus and the fervor of the filmmakers as well.

Itís best to watch the movie through once, and then tackle the audio commentary. What emerges is a sense of wonderment over how such a well-crafted film rose from the chaos and indecision surrounding the production. We learn how the movie was originally scheduled to be filmed in 1983, but was shut down just days before principal photography commenced. Devastated, Scorsese re-grouped four years later with a much smaller budget ($7 million) and less than two months to shoot a nearly-three-hour-long movie.

Based on the Nikos Kazantzakis novel, The Last Temptation of Christ posed a formidable challenge for Paul Schrader. He and Scorsese wanted a contemporary sound for the movie, something colloquial but "not too street-wise." The novel was written in demotic Greek which, Schrader tells us on the audio commentary track, translates into dense, poetic English. So Schraderís task was to distill the novelís plot and create new dialogue that sounds like todayís spoken word.

As Jesus, Willem Dafoe gives one of the best performances of the decade and should have received an Oscar nomination, but he didnít thanks to the controversy surrounding the release. Itís a little weird hearing Dafoe joke on the commentary track about production snafus while watching him being crucified on screen. Dafoe offers several anecdotes, including one where, during the storming of the temple scene, he accidentally hurled a metal plate and struck director of photography Michael Ballhaus. He required several stitches.

DVD cover artwork for The Last Temptation of Christ.
[click photo for larger version]

But the real force behind Temptation is of course Scorsese. He seems to direct by infecting those around him with his passion. He recounts how he wanted to move away from traditional Biblical epics ("Jesus goes to the movies" as he puts it) and try for something unconventional. He chose actors from different regions of the United States to play the apostles. For Paul, he chose Harry Dean Stanton, a Southerner, who could lend a revivalist quality to the role. Judas is played by Harvey Keitel, a longtime Scorsese collaborator, whose New York sensibilities bring vulnerability to the often misunderstood disciple.

Music is as important as always, and Scorsese asked composer Peter Gabriel to bring "the ancient and the contemporary together." The result is an eclectic score combining rock with indigenous music from West Africa, the Middle East, Pakistan, and India. More than anything else, Gabrielís score dispels the Sunday school notion of a white-washed Judea, and replaces it with a bustling, heterogeneous melting pot. And by mixing the Eastern and Western, the old and new, Gabriel achieves a "timelessness" that makes the movie feel fresh after ten years.

The idea of mixing antiquity with modernism also informs Scorseseís visual compositions. The scene where Jesus carries the cross through a crowded street is modeled after a famous Bosch painting. Thereís a "two-dimensional quality" to the painting which Scorsese imitates by using a faster camera speed so that the faces seem to float in the air. Other scenes are patterned after archaeological finds that Scorsese researched before filming. Holding these scenes together is Scorseseís restless camera, zooming and swooshing all over the place, and the brusque editing by Thelma Schoonmaker. These distinctly modern touches draw attention to themselves, bringing Jesusí state of mind closer to us, and ultimately demystifying his character.

The emotional immediacy of Jesus Ė his humanization Ė is really what got people upset, speculates Scorsese. A good part of the commentary is devoted to the controversy surrounding the movie. Itís almost unnecessary since those whoíve bought the DVD probably donít object to it. But itís become part of movie history, and itís interesting to hear Scorsese and Schrader defend their work. According to Christianity, Scorsese explains, "Jesus is both fully human and fully divine." But the movie chooses to stress his human side, especially early in the story when Jesus thinks heís possessed by the Devil. Scorsese admits that perhaps he overemphasized Jesusí fallibility as a way of distancing the movie from the emasculated image of Jesus as a saint "wearing a white sheet."

stills from
The Last Temptation of Christ

[click photos for larger versions]

The most vocal protestors attacked Temptation for the now famous scene in which Jesus imagines making love to Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey). In the brief scene, Jesus imagines what being human is like, which necessarily involves marriage and the act of procreation. But fundamentalists exaggerated the sexual content, condemning it as pornographic and salacious. They even offered to buy the negative from Universal Studios so that they could burn it. This occurred before the movie had even opened. People objected to the idea of the film, rather than to the film itself, Scorsese speculates. He tells how he showed the movie to his neighborhood priest, an elderly gentleman, who didnít have any problems with the sexuality but did think that overall there was a little too much "Good Friday and not enough Easter Sunday."

Schrader is more academic in his defense. He concedes that the movie is blasphemous because, from a purely theological viewpoint, if Jesus is God, then he cannot be used as an artistic metaphor, or as a symbol to convey the filmmakerís message. As a Calvinist, Schrader explains, he grew up in an environment where the Scripture was hotly debated every Sunday and was treated as a piece of literature to be picked apart and scrutinized. Itís this confrontational spirit that he wanted to guide the movie. This is probably the most cerebral film about Jesus ever made.

But the real proof is the movie itself, which most protesters never saw. How does it interact with the publicís conceptions of Jesus? Remembering opening night at New Yorkís Ziegfield theater, Jay Cocks recounts how he expected the movie to be roundly booed. Instead, it received a standing ovation from the paying audience. Elated, he rushed off to phone Scorsese, who was working on another film at the time. Scorsese was speechless, for once, and had to stop what he was doing to ask his friend to repeat what he had just said.

We get a further sampling of Scorsese the man through a brief home movie that Scorsese himself made during the shooting. Itís jumbled and a bit fuzzy, but there a few hilarious moments, including one where Scorsese films himself in the mirror and wonders aloud if the red light on the camcorder means itís on. We also get a sense of the frantic pace the crew had to endure. With fewer than eight weeks for principal photography, Scorsese and his production staff drew each shot by hand, allotted themselves a fixed amount of time to get it on film (sometimes less than fifteen minutes), and then moved to the next set-up. And Dafoe explains, in painstaking detail, how he had to film the crucifixion scene two minutes at a time to avoid suffocation and black-out.

Those who havenít seen the movie in some time will be surprised how well itís aged. Every scene packs a punch, and the last temptation, which spans the movieís final forty minutes, is as devastating as ever. What a joy it is to be able to experience this movie. And to be able to own it is a real treat considering that it is still banned in certain countries (and at Blockbuster Video). Protestors aside, The Last Temptation of Christ has become a modern day classic.

The Last Temptation of Chris is now available on DVD from the Criterion Collection. The movie is given a widescreen presentation (1.85:1). An alternative audio track contains commentary by director Martin Scorsese, star Willem Dafoe, screenwriter Paul Schrader, and film critic Jay Cocks. The new Dolby Digital 5.1 channel soundtrack was supervised by original supervising sound editor Skip Lievsay. The DVD contains an extensive collection of research materials, production stills and costume designs. In addition, the DVD contains location production footage shot by Scrosese himself and a video interview with composer Peter Gabriel. Suggested retail price: $39.95. For additonal information, check out the Criterion Collection Web site.