Greeted with hostility upon its 1988 release, Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ has remained an invigorating, underrated slice of cinematic history. Scorsese initially planned to adapt Nikos Kazantzakis' source novel more than a decade earlier, but the controversial "reimagining" of Jesus Christ's life led to protest campaigns by right-wing religious groups. Paramount cancelled the project in 1983, so Scorsese retreated to the chaotic night life of Manhattan for another lesser-seen gem, 1985's After Hours. Luckily, he rebounded a year later with The Color of Money, which gave the director enough momentum to finally get The Last Temptation off the ground. Completed in less than two months on an extremely modest $7M budget, the final result was a lightning rod that continues to age gracefully.
Our story follows Jesus as he struggles with the burden of being a deity's mouthpiece. He's not completely willing to sacrifice himself for humankind, but a number of signs eventually convince him to follow through with the inevitable crucifixion. Soon enough, however, the jeers of bloodthirsty onlookers are silenced in the presence of an apparent guardian angel. Supposedly sent by God to save him from a slow, agonizing death, the angel convinces Jesus to pursue the quiet, domestic life that he may have wanted all along. Though Jesus eventually recants his decision to stay on Earth, this humanizing twist gives us another view of someone who, for so many people, is almost always kept at arm's length.
Temptation's unusual approach to authenticity gives it a peculiar but accessible atmosphere. Shot on location in Morocco, the film's minimalist set design, energetic camera swipes and "come as you are" approach to accents stand in direct contrast with biblical epics like The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur. The Last Temptation of Christ still feels as if it were shot recently, and with a spontaneous spirit. Special effects are basically non-existent, while borderline-silly notions like "talking animals" are handled with a straightforward, unapologetic style that doesn't call attention to itself. Without question, a lack of time and money often forces folks to creatively cut corners. The Last Temptation of Christ is about a short-lived historical figure who avoided luxury, so it's basically a marriage made in heaven.
Criterion's continued support of The Last Temptation of Christ now extends to Blu-Ray; their 2000 DVD release stood alone until last week, when Universal finally released their own version as part of the studio's "100th Anniversary" line. For better or worse, this shiny new Criterion disc focuses purely on the A/V department and doesn't offer anything new in the way of extras. Either way, this fantastic film deserves to be seen and this is currently the best way to see it. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
NOTE: As with the previous Criterion release, the source material used here contains a small bit of blurring during the baptism scene to obscure a bit of male nudity. I'm not sure if an "uncircumcised" version exists, but this definitely isn't it. Remember, Americans: blood good, penis bad.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
The Last Temptation of Christ was not meant to be a slick, glossy production, but its highly influential cinematography is replicated nicely in this brand new 1080p transfer. Approved by Scorsese, editor Thelma Schoonmaker and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, the dusty Moroccan landscapes are coated with a pleasing layer of natural film grain. Oddly enough, early scenes look a bit washed out and lean towards pink skin tones, while the golden hues of the "Last Temptation" final act have never looked better. Several darker sequences suffer from higher levels of grain and muddy black levels, but this is undoubtedly a source material issue. No digital imperfections could be spotted along the way...so aside from the color timing of certain scenes early on, it's pretty tough to complain overall.
Sound often gets overshadowed when it comes to the benefits of a high definition experience, but this DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix is purely enjoyable from start to finish. Peter Gabriel's percussive, passionate score sounds clear and dynamic, rear channel activity is tastefully used and dialogue is crisp and easy to understand. LFE certainly isn't a driving force here...but it kicks in on several occasions, and to great effect. Optional English subtitles have been provided, but only during the main feature.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen above, this disc is packaged in Criterion's standard "stocky" Blu-Ray keepcase, which includes recycled cover artwork and a Booklet
with an essay by film critic David Ehrenstein. Menu designs are clean and concise, everything loads quickly and this disc is locked for Region "A" playback only. The 163-minute feature has been divided into 30 chapters and no obvious layer change was detected.
I love Criterion as much as the next guy, but their approach to Blu-Ray reissues has been a little underwhelming in the "new extras" department. Case in point: everything here is recycled from previous DVD and Laserdisc editions, although it's all quality stuff. Returning supplements include a terrific Audio Commentary
featuring Martin Scorsese, Willem Dafoe and writers Jay Cocks & Paul Schrader; three slideshow-style Photo Galleries
of costume designs, stills, research materials, and musical instruments used for the score; Scorsese's vintage "On Location in Morocco"
production diary from November 1987 (15:44); and a short Interview
with Peter Gabriel (12:04) about his contributions to the film.
An appropriate mix of extras, to be sure...but these were all created in the mid-1990s, and it's a shame nothing new has been added to this release (aside from the "Timeline" feature, which is always welcome). $40 is a lot to ask for a catalog title, especially one that only offers a cosmetic upgrade.
Religious films don't always hit the mark, but Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ is one of the most effective, moving and misunderstood productions in cinematic history. I've seen it multiple times and it never fails to amaze me, offering an abstract, fascinating look at a man who's often taken much too literally. Criterion's Blu-Ray package is well-rounded but a bit too familiar, pairing an excellent new A/V presentation with the same bonus features found on past releases. Die-hard fans should have no problem upgrading, though new viewers may want to try before they buy. Firmly Recommended.
NOTE: The above images were obtained from promotional outlets and do not represent Blu-Ray's native 1080p resolution.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey from Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off and writing stuff in third person.