The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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The Avengers
DVD Playback
Anatomy of a Murder
The Last Temptation
ASC Close-Up
The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Blu-ray Edition
1.85:1 (1080p High Definition)
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
The Criterion Collection, $39.95

At the time of its theatrical release, Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ met with so much controversy it was barely possible to appreciate it simply as a work of art. The movie, based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel, examines the human side of Christ in a story that imagines Jesus pondering what it would be like to turn his back on God and live as a man. Although Scorsese was a Catholic who studied for the priesthood before turning to cinema, his intentions were immediately questioned by Christian fundamentalists who seemed motivated more by fundraising possibilities than by any religious purpose. (Their community had just endured the Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart sex scandals, and marshaling the troops against Hollywood was a convenient way of increasing funds and stature.)

Loud protests greeted Last Temptation when it opened on the screens owned by exhibitors unafraid to show it. The film became less a movie than a cultural event, sparking bombastic arguments among those who sought to suppress the picture and those who rallied to Scorsese’s defense. Yet all this controversy obscured the fact that the movie was actually a contemplative, serious meditation on Christ’s struggles and ultimate sacrifice. An inspiring depiction of victory over evil, it was not only an artistic triumph, but also a spiritual one.

Scorsese’s desire to make the film dated back to the early 1970s, and he built up his capital as a director over the next several years with acclaimed films such as Mean Streets, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, so that by the early 1980s, he was able to talk Paramount into funding Last Temptation as a big-budget epic. Unfortunately, when studio executives got a whiff of the fundamentalist furor to come, they backed out of the project just days before production was to begin.

Scorsese relaunched his passion project several years later at Universal, but at a much lower budget and on a much shorter schedule. One could argue the financial limitations yielded major creative dividends, for Last Temptation has a sense of urgency and realism. Shooting on location in Morocco with minimal extras and modest sets, Scorsese presents a version of Jesus less mythic and more relatable and realistic than is customary in Hollywood films.

Scorsese called upon his Color of Money cinematographer, Michael Ballhaus, ASC, to step behind the camera. Scorsese and Ballhaus first teamed on the low-budget production After Hours, and during that shoot, the director was impressed by Ballhaus’ ability to create beautiful, expressive images with remarkable speed. Last Temptation carries over some of the techniques from After Hours but uses them to a different, more transcendent purpose: the dynamic, unmotivated camera moves used to create anxiety in the earlier film here convey a sense of the unseen, all-powerful presence around whom the entire drama revolves.  

The Criterion Collection released a fine standard-definition DVD of Last Temptation in 2000, but any serious admirer of the film will want to pick up this new HD upgrade. The Blu-ray transfer has increased detail, greater color fidelity and immense improvement in the many night exteriors, which are razor-sharp here but fell prey to numerous compression artifacts in the previous DVD. The 5.1 surround mix is an even greater improvement, with remarkable clarity in the high frequencies and dialogue tracks, effective use of the surround channels for effects, and a robust presentation of Peter Gabriel’s innovative score.

The extra features are all excellent and carried over from the standard-def DVD: a commentary track by Scorsese, lead actor Willem Dafoe and screenwriters Paul Schrader and Jay Cocks; a 13-minute interview with Gabriel on the music; 15 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage shot by Scorsese; and a collection of stills, costume designs and research documents. The package allows viewers to approach Scorsese’s achievement as an object worthy of serious study and thoughtful debate, one that offers ample rewards to those willing to meet its challenges.

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