Updated: Aug 23, 2020
Quality of film aside, Martin Scorcese's body of work does not rely on a single connection or theme. One could call him the father of gangster crime dramas, but that would be undermining his skill at so many more tales he is capable of. The Last Temptation of Christ is an outlier of a Scorcese movie, plagued by production issues, strange acting choices and an overall dense running time that is bound to scare away the more casual viewer. However, it is a rewarding watch for those open-minded and die hard fans of the director, despite, including my own reservations, your religious background. I would more and more as the days go on consider myself a somewhat spiritual person. That being said, I was not raised Catholic so I could neither be offended or entranced by the film's narrative. When I say offended we will explore the controversy of the movie, which in today's film climate may seem a bit underwhelming.
In 1988, Martin Scorcese was two years away from filming what would be considered by some his masterpiece: Goodfellas. He was also just finished with the 1986 film The Color of Money a personal favorite of mine. The body of work he was known for was eclectic, successful and broad. It was known to some that he had wanted to work on a religious movie for over a decade prior to starting this project, which is actually an adaptation of a book by Nikos Kazantzakis. This book wasn't without it's own controversy, which then was translated to the movie. While I know very little on the influence or offense this film took on its religious critics, I can say that the movie follows a fantasy sequence that certainly goes into rocky waters with the history of Christ.
To review this film, I should specify its faults, at least to me, in production and in its final product. Willem Dafoe is a phenomenal if culturally innapropriate choice for the role of Christ, and he absolutely commands the scenes of hope and gospel among scenes of misery and doubt. Harvey Keitel is a famously bad choice as Judas, he seems incapable of masking his Brooklynesque accent and dialect, and those who know him in better roles like Mean Streets will have trouble defending the casting choice. I feel as if the majority of the flaws of the film are cracks pertaining to the problematic production issues which were rushed, underfunded and frustrating to the director. His aspirations for this film would not resonate in the final product, and even on the film's commentary this aging director sounds a tad grumpy.
With all its cracks and flaws, I must say as a neutral viewer with knowledge of its history but not much personal bias one way or the other, I was very pleased with the film. The setting is simple, mostly desert mixed with surreal moments of biblical and fantastical imagery; the use of non flashy visual effects may have been due to the film's uneven budget, but they work in telling a human and simple tale. As I mentioned before, Dafoe is great, some of his scenes on the proverbial pulpit are so arresting and convincing that they filled this viewer up with some inspiration. Let me stress the best part of this production to me is the phenomenal and extremely inspired choice to have Peter Gabriel compose the original soundtrack for the movie. It is overwhelming at times, enchanting even.
The Criterion release of this film showcases the finely restored print and sound of the original release, in its completely unedited final product and some features including a commentary track I referred to earlier. This is spine #70 in the plus 1000 releases Criterion would put out. Formerly released on DVD and eventually cleaned up to a finer print via Blu-ray.