"The Last Temptation of Christ"

Martin Scorsese's life-size religious portrait really was scandalous, but not because Jesus and Mary Magdalene had sex.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published March 6, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

"The Last Temptation of Christ"
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Barbara Hershey, Harry Dean Stanton, David Bowie
Home Vision/Criterion Collection; widescreen anamorphic (original 1.85:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: Commentary by director, star and screenwriters; director's on-location video; Peter Gabriel interview; more

As screenwriter Paul Schrader explains on the commentary track included on this disc, those who were horrified by "The Last Temptation of Christ" picked the wrong reasons. Most of the controversy focused on a scene in which Jesus and Mary Magdalene make love, but that, of course, only happens in the dying Christ's imagination, as Satan is tempting him with visions of the normal life he has given up. The real heresy in "Last Temptation" (which Schrader adapted from the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis) is its depiction of Judas as Jesus' most loving and loyal disciple, chosen for the difficult act of betrayal necessary to ensure human salvation. Nobody noticed, and so a film intended as a reverent, deeply serious exploration of faith was widely understood, for better or worse, as blasphemous.

More than a dozen years after its release, it's tough to see "Last Temptation" as shocking (even if Blockbuster still refuses to carry it). It's a lovely, measured and deeply earnest work. It balances a realistic view of first century Palestine -- its Mediterranean light and air, its culture of Judaic splinter cults and Messianic fervor -- against a sincere consideration of how an ordinary man might learn he is divine. It also balances, as Schrader observes, his own Dutch Calvinist background, with its focus on logic and reason, and the bloody aesthetic-symbolic character of Martin Scorsese's working-class Catholicism.

In his espresso-fueled portion of the commentary track, Scorsese observes that Willem Dafoe as Jesus is in some ways a conventional choice, since he looks exactly like the neatly groomed Caucasian shown in generations of Sunday-school picture books. But Dafoe is also a profoundly serious actor from the alternative theater world, always on a mission to rub the physical and intellectual fibers of his character down to their threads. His intensely felt performance makes the crucifixion scene a landmark moment in Scorsese's film career and in the history of cinematic attempts to capture the Passion.

Harvey Keitel still seems uncomfortable with much of Judas' dialogue (although he has some fine moments), but the cast as a whole is full of wonders, from Andre Gregory as John the Baptist to Harry Dean Stanton as the evangelist who finally convinces Christ he can't avoid his destiny. As the soulful and lovely Mary Magdalene, Barbara Hershey is so good, and, yes, so sexy, that one wishes her part were more developed. As the filmmakers explain, this was an intimate epic, shot in Morocco on a limited budget and a short schedule. Scorsese observes that working with B-movie director Roger Corman taught him to use extras over and over again; the same four Roman soldiers reappear throughout the film. But at least in 1988, it was the only Christ film that reflected a human scale true to its subject and setting.

The commentary track, also featuring Dafoe and uncredited co-writer Jay Cocks, is crammed with detail and debate about the research, historical sources and personal struggle that underpinned the film, not merely factoids about how scenes were lit. Scorsese's edgy on-set video, shot with a VHS camera, is fascinating in small doses, and there's a wealth of background material, production stills, costume sketches and so forth. The Peter Gabriel interview may be superfluous (though his influential world-music fusion score remains terrific) but this well-packaged Criterion offering is a must for Scorsese fans of all persuasions, and may even convert some of the Gentiles.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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