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With: Willem Dafoe, Harvey Keitel, Barbara Hershey, Harry Dean Stanton, Verna Bloom, Roberts Blossom, David Bowie, Andre Gregory, John Lurie, Irvin Kershner, Victor Argo
Written by: Paul Schrader, based on a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 164
Date: 08/12/1988

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)

4 Stars (out of 4)

The Mean Streets of Jerusalem

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Now that twelve years have passed, most people have probably forgotten the uproar around Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). And for those of us who have seen and love the film, the uproar didn't make any sense in the first place.

Various religious groups protested the film because it portrays Jesus Christ not as a deity, but as both deity and man; a man with doubts, fears, and desires. The film actually makes more sense than the noble storybook versions that have been passed on through the years, and in the end, it doesn't betray a single bit of Jesus' message.

The brilliant first scene has Jesus (Willem Dafoe) asleep on the ground in what looks like a familiar religious pose. But when he wakes up, we see that he's tortured and in pain. The voice of God literally causes him pain. Throughout the course of the film, he travels from desert to town, picking up pieces of knowledge here and there, and is alternately excited and terrified over God's plan for him. Once on the cross, he is tempted by the devil to live an ordinary life as a man -- with a wife and kids and a job -- which he accepts. He grows old and happy. On his deathbed, as Jerusalem burns, he realizes his mistake and begs God to let him back on the cross to die for everyone's sins.

The most obvious effect of this more human approach is that it allows us to identify with Jesus, see his plight, and understand why he had to die for us. If Jesus was only a deity and not a man, it wouldn't have made any difference to us if he died on the cross or not.

Moreover, Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader (with a polish from an uncredited Jay Cocks) present the material (based on the equally controversial novel by Nikos Kazantzakis) in a straightforward way with little spectacle or grandeur. Strangely, Scorsese was inspired by -- and dearly loves -- those humongous pageants made in the 50's and 60's like The Robe, King of Kings, and The Bible. But he purposely chose to make his low-budget film different, to speak directly to his audience instead of preaching at them from above. It's content to work from ground level, reveling in the dirt and sun.

Of the people who actually saw the film, the biggest complaint was the modern-day language and New York accents of actors like Harvey Keitel (who plays Judas). Again Scorsese and his writers did this on purpose to find a connection with the audience. Hearing Jesus speak in "thees" and "thous", or whatever, would have put us to sleep.

No, my biggest complaint about the film is the casting of Hollywood stars. It's the final little catch that might prevent us connecting with the film completely and being swept away spiritually. Dafoe does a fine job, and you can forget that he's an actor, but seeing Keitel along with Harry Dean Stanton, Barbara Hershey, David Bowie, and Andre Gregory in supporting roles can jar you out of the film. (Scorsese corrected this problem with his next religious epic, the superior Kundun -- one of the very best films of his career.)

The DVD release by the Criterion Collection boasts wonderful picture and sound and tons of extras, although most of them are in text format that you have to read off your TV screen. Other than that, the disc includes 15 minutes of amusing VHS footage shot in 1987 by Scorsese himself, and a recent interview with Peter Gabriel who discusses his excellent score at length. (The one thing the disc is really missing is an isolated music track, so that we can really listen to it.) The commentary by Scorsese, Cocks, Schrader, and Dafoe is excellent and informative, but it was recorded separately and edited together so that there's no interaction between them. (Criterion's editions of The Player and Dead Ringers are also recorded this way.) The coolest bit of trivia is Scorsese's casting of Leo Marks, the screenwriter of Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960), as the voice of the column of fire who tempts Jesus in the desert.

In a way, The Last Temptation of Christ belongs right alongside Scorsese's more urban films like Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980). It's about a spiritual struggle mixed with a physical one; the clashing of ideas and feelings, of dreams and reality. It wasn't until Kundun (also a film about an inner struggle) that he achieved a true spiritual revelation. But The Last Temptation of Christ is still a masterful film, and very much capable of whisking us away.

In 2012, Criterion released its Blu-Ray version, looking more like a film print, but not as dazzling as one might expect; this might have been done purposely by the filmmakers to keep a certain dusty look. The extras are all the same, though the liner notes essay has been updated with notes on the more successful, but inferior The Passion of the Christ.

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