- Martin Scorsese Producer - Barbara de Fina Starring - Willem Dafoe Harvey Keitel Barbara Hershey Harry Dean Stanton Filmed - America, 1988 DVD by - Criterion
The Voice Of God
Martin Scorsese is arguably one of the greatest American directors of recent years, churning out classics like "Taxi Driver", "Goodfellas", and "Casino". But although his tough unflinching approach has often led to criticism, his most controversial film is undoubtedly "The Last Temptation Of Christ", an adaptation of the book of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis.
Attacked by many fundamentalist Christians because of its at times graphic content and the portrayal of Jesus as man rather than messiah, it is in fact a deeply spiritual and incredibly moving look at the life of Christ, which is thought provoking and highly entertaining even for non-believers such as myself, a devout atheist for the last fifteen years.
Willem Dafoe plays Jesus, a confused young man plagued by uncertainty and self-doubt; he is a man who suffers from fainting spells, blinding headaches and bizarre visions, who hears voices. The voice is of course God's, although Jesus is unsure even of that at the beginning. "If it's the devil, the devil can be cast out", his mother tells him. "But what if it's God?", replies Jesus. "You can't cast out God can you?"
At times the pain and the voices become too much, and all he wants is for God to pick somebody else. "God loves me, I know he loves me. I want him to stop. I fight him, I make crosses so that he will hate me."
It is only after being purified in the desert that he begins to accept the role that God has chosen for him, and here he is joined by his friend Judas, played bizarrely enough by Harvey Keitel. Sent to kill Jesus by the Zealots for collaborating with the Romans, Judas instead decides to take a chance and join him, becoming the first and most faithful of his disciples.
From here on the film moves quickly, taking in some of the most famous acts recorded in the New Testament along the way. Jesus gives his sermon on the mount, meets John the Baptist, faces temptation in the desert, raises Lazarus from the dead, casts out demons from the insane, and cures the blind. But the focus is less on the miracles and more on the man behind them, Jesus himself and his continuing uncertainty and fears.
God only reveals his plan to Jesus a little at a time, and speaks through him in parables. At first he tells the people to love one another, but eventually he finds himself at the head of a mob about to burn down the great temple in Jerusalem, facing the Roman garrison there. His words are misinterpreted or simply ignored; in one memorable scene he tells the people that the meek will inherit the Earth while the rich become hungry, only for the crowd to run off taking his words as a call for revolution, screaming "kill the rich". Being the messiah is not easy, although it is better than what fate has in store for Judas, who finds himself being asked to betray his closest friend. As Jesus says, "God gave me the easier job, to be crucified..."
Sound And Vision
As with most of Scorsese's movies, the direction is impeccable and the whole thing simply oozes style, from the long shots of Jesus and his growing band of followers marching across the desert hills to the slow motion sequence of the possessed streaming out of holes in the parched ground as Jesus comes to cast out their demons. The only time things seem to get bogged down a little is during the last temptation itself, but overall the pacing is near perfect.
The film is accompanied throughout by Peter Gabriel's inspirational score, mixing haunting drones and the incredible voice of Islamic devotional singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan with pounding ethnic beats and traditional instruments of the Middle East and North Africa. The music matches the mood of the film perfectly, and in scenes such as the march on the temple and the journey to the cross it helps to lift the whole thing to a higher level. Silence is used equally effectively in places, such as the wailing crowds on the banks of the River Jordan fading out as Jesus faces John The Baptist for the first time, or in the crucifixion scene as the "angel" comes to Jesus on the cross.
Meanwhile the impressive cast of actors all put in solid performances, from Dafoe's insecure and tortured Jesus and Keitel's passionate Judas through to Barbara Hershey as the whore Mary Magdalene and Victor Argo as an inconstant Peter, with David Bowie appearing in a surprising cameo as the Roman governor Pontius Pilate.
The disc itself lives up to the standards of the Criterion Collection, with a new high quality Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, and a solid if slightly grainy widescreen transfer presented at the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
The menus give you access to a whole range of extra features, including an excellent audio commentary track featuring Willem Dafoe and Martin Scorsese, as well as co-writers Paul Schrader and Jay Cocks. It's well worth watching the film through a second time with the commentary to get more of an incite into the making of the movie and what Scorsese and company were trying to achieve. Also provided is an interesting feature on the movie's soundtrack, including a short interview with Peter Gabriel and a gallery of photographs of some of the instruments and musicians involved in the production.
Apart from that there are large collections of design sketches and stills, illustrating everything from costume design to the research that Scorsese did to make sure that the settings and characters were as authentic to the period as possible. Finally there is a home video shot by Scorsese during the making of the movie, which starts off slowly but includes some amusing behind-the-scenes sequences of the actors goofing about, as well as shots of the film crew at work.
All in all a great disc of a great movie, packed with fascinating extra features. Sadly it comes with a price tag to match, but it's worth every dime - The Last Temptation might not be the most conventional adaptation of the life of Christ, but it's certainly by far the best. Film - 9/10 Disc - 9/10 Availability -
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