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The Last Temptation of Christ

Universal/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment . R4 . COLOR . 157 mins . M15+ . PAL


The controversy that surrounded Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation Of Christ at the time of its cinema release back in 1988 was, in hindsight, entirely predictable. Those heading into cinemas screening the film - this reviewer included - were shouted at by placard-waving protesters who were trying to convey the message that the film was blasphemous, and that it should not be seen at all. Needless to say, few - if any - of these protesters had actually seen the film. Much of the controversy arose from media reports from the US, where protest about the film was substantial - but the novel of the same name upon which the film was based (and it’s vitally important to note that the book was a novel) had already generated plenty of controversy on its own. Indeed, its author was excommunicated from his church upon the book’s release.

The irony is that The Last Temptation Of Christ, Scorsese’s long-germinated filming of the book of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis, is one of the most deeply spiritual and moving films about the title character ever made. While no-one complained about Jesus Christ being portrayed as a steely-faced rock star in Jesus Christ Superstar, a theatrical hippie in Godspell or as a veritable cartoon character in most of the earlier films about his life, the idea that he could possibly be portrayed with simple human frailty in Scorsese’s film was more than many could accept.

It’s probably worth mentioning at this point, given the subject matter, that this reviewer does not subscribe to any organised religion - but rest assured, that’s not what this film is about. The point is made in the opening titles that this film is not based on the bible’s gospels - instead, the film tells the story of a man named Jesus without resorting to either the stories of old or formularised beliefs. This is speculation, a work of fiction based upon the life of a person that did, as has been proved historically, at the very least exist as a man. Could Jesus have actually been the very human son of God? Or could he have been an ordinary man who only thought that he had been called by a higher power? Neither Kazantzakis nor Scorsese take a position on that, preferring to let the audience decide.

The controversy, though, mainly arose from the final act of the film, which also gives rise to the title (and a warning at this point for those who have never seen the film - this paragraph contains spoilers). Hanging crucified and in agony, Jesus finds himself confronted by an angel who takes him away from death and allows him the luxury of a “normal” life, something Jesus had, even according to the gospels, wished for at the eleventh hour. In this “life” - or vision, depending upon how you choose to perceive it - he consummates a long-standing relationship with Mary Magdelene, is married and grows old. That’s not all there is to this sequence, though - but to say more would be to give away too much of the film, even though it would pacify those Christians unwilling to watch it. Suffice to say, it all makes sense by the time the final scenes play out.

Scorsese, crafting one of his most personal films (nearly ten years later, he would enter similarly personal territory with the superb Kundun), brings very few of his trademark motifs to The Last Temptation Of Christ, preferring instead a meditative, and sometimes almost hallucinatory mood. He crafts his film with skill from start to finish, relying heavily on both heavily stylised visual imagery (with Michael Ballhaus’ stunning cinematography a big asset) and the audio soundtrack to convey mood rather than specific ideas. Make no mistake, though - there’s plenty of plot here. Regardless of whether or not you are of a religious persuasion, this is a compelling story however it is told, and the attention to detail in the sets (built on location in Morocco) and costumes is remarkable.

The cast all acquit themselves well, but while the performances by the likes of Harvey Keitel, Barbara Hershey, Harry Dean Stanton and even David Bowie (as Pontius Pilate) are never less than credible, they all pale in comparison to Willem Dafoe’s remarkable portrayal of Jesus. While controversial in itself - but this time with the critics - his performance here is astonishingly committed and believable, in what is, for any actor, one of the hardest of all roles to play. The screenplay - by Paul Schrader, who also wrote Taxi Driver and Raging Bull for Scorsese - gives all of the actors words that are never less than utterly believable, particularly in the context of the time and place in which these events take place.

While the title may lead many to think otherwise, this is a film for everyone, not just the religious - and indeed, it’s the very refusal of The Last Temptation Of Christ to shove cliché and doctrine down the viewer’s throat that makes it such a surprising and moving experience.


The release of The Last Temptation Of Christ in the US last year by the Criterion Collection made many people very happy - not least because it promised a brand new, cinematographer-approved hi-def transfer of the film (done, for the record, on the Spirit Datacine). But the Criterion disc - uniformly acclaimed by reviewers - will cost you at least 60 Australian dollars to buy not including shipping, and that’s a large enough amount of change to put many off.

So it’s very exciting to find that Universal have used that very same new transfer for the region 4 DVD - and it looks outstanding. Presented at its correct 1.85:1 aspect ratio and 16:9 enhanced, this transfer is a revelation - it looks better then the original cinema screenings of the film did, and puts the full-frame VHS transfer to shame. Scorsese and Ballhaus’ extensive use of low light and warm colour palettes shines on this DVD, and the detail in the image is astonishing - though one side effect of all this crisp resolution is some minor aliasing on high-detail scenes, along with the occasional moment of distracting edge enhancement. The interpositive used for the transfer also exhibits artefacts on occasion - mostly minor dust and scratches - but these are never distracting. There’s also a fair amount of film grain visible in many scenes, but this is how the film was originally photographed.

Compression problems are non-existent - not at all surprising given the extremely high bitrate of this disc, with the 157 minute film taking up almost the entire capacity of the dual layered disc. In this regard the region 4 disc is superior to the Criterion release, which had to back off on the bitrate to accommodate extra material on the disc. Compression here was handled by the skilled crew at WAMO (the Criterion version was compressed by Sony’s New York facility).


As if the stunning video wasn’t enough to make this disc worth the price of admission, the audio track here - newly remixed by the film’s supervising sound editor Skip Lievsay, one of the finest sound manipulators in the business - seals it. Using the original audio masters for dialogue and effects as well as the multitrack master of Peter Gabriel’s music score, he creates a totally immersive experience that takes the film to a new level. Much of the mood and emotion of The Last Temptation Of Christ comes from its use of audio, and with that audio track now brought up to modern standards the effect is eye-opening. Gabriel’s music now takes advantage of the full surround stage, and is graced with a much-enhanced frequency response - in fact, it outdoes the CD soundtrack album (released under the title Passion) in terms of sheer sound quality.

Dialogue is crystal-clear at all times, belying the film’s 13-year vintage; even in simple stereo, this is an outstanding DVD soundtrack.


Here’s a potentially controversial area with this DVD - though, to be fair, Criterion have not, to date, shown any desire to license the extra features they produce to the multinational companies for overseas use.

While the Criterion disc was laden with extras including a commentary track, interviews, documentaries and still photos, all we get on Universal’s disc is a theatrical trailer, which is presented full-frame and is of acceptable but unremarkable quality.

As pointed out above, though, WAMO have taken full advantage of the free space to allow the feature itself more room to breathe on the disc, and even given the greater amount of audio streams on this version (there are three more than the Criterion) it’s beyond doubt that the Universal disc has the superior picture, especially with the added resolution of PAL.


Obviously, spending over two and a half hours with the story of Christianity’s origins is not going to be everyone’s idea of a fun night at home in front of the screen. But rest assured that regardless of your spiritual persuasion, there’s reward here for almost everyone - in both a cinematic and literal way.

One of Martin Scorsese’s most underrated and under-appreciated movies, The Last Temptation Of Christ is a masterpiece of modern cinema that deserves a wide audience - and, thanks to Universal’s unexpected decision to release it on DVD in Australia, it can now be appreciated with the visual and aural splendour it deserves.

  • LINK: http://www.dvd.net.au/review.cgi?review_id=513
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      And I quote...
    "...a masterpiece of modern cinema that can now be appreciated with the visual and aural splendour it deserves."
    - Anthony Horan
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