Inessential Essentials: Last Temptation of Christ on Blu-ray

Movieline is pleased to introduce Inessential Essentials, a regular feature about some of the most intriguing — if not necessarily most obvious — new home-viewing options on the market. We begin today with a film practically doomed by controversy a quarter-century ago, resurrected for DVD and finally given the treatment it truly deserves this week on Blu-ray. — Ed.

What's the Film: The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), new on Blu-ray via Criterion Collection

Why it's an Inessential Essential: Adapted from Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel by the same, The Last Temptation of Christ is a moving and heart-felt testament of religious faith. It’s also probably not the first film you’d think of when you think of when you think of Martin Scorsese’s filmography. Temptation follows Jesus of Nazareth (Willem Dafoe) in his long journey from looking at God’s presence as “the ultimate headache,” to quote Temptation screenwriter Paul Schrader, towards seeing death in the service of God as an act of divine mercy.

The Last Temptation of Christ isn’t the only film of Scorsese’s to focus on a troubled protagonist’s spiritual crisis. Like several of Scorsese’s protagonists, Jesus gradually comes to understand the difference between how he can behave and how he should behave according to his moral principles. He’s a man first, and only by film’s end does he really become the messiah, too.

Still, because of its sexual implications, the film was a source of major controversy when it was released in 1988 and even before then when Scorsese originally tried unsuccessfully to make The Last Temptation of Christ with Paramount Studios in 1983 on a considerably bigger budget. According to David Ehrenstein’s liner notes, Scorsese was told he could make the picture with a budget of $15-20 million. But then a letter-writing campaign from Christian fundamentalists stopped the 1983 production dead in its tracks. Scorsese would go on to make Temptation with a considerably smaller $7 million with Universal Studios. Nearly 25 years later, as comedian Billy Crystal "joked" during the most recent Oscars telecast, Scorsese is still always going to be the guy that did Goodfellas and other "crime pictures."

How the DVD/Blu Makes the Case for the Film: Predictably enough for a Criterion release, the Blu-ray features a number of exceptional special features, including a terrific audio commentary track that selectively alternates between Scorsese, Schrader, Dafoe and screenwriter Jay Cocks. The track is especially good since it only lets any one of these four talking heads speak when they have something worth saying, such as when Scorsese explains the background behind Mary Magdalene's tattoos, or Cocks’s description of Scorsese’s filmmaking approach: “The simplest, most direct way is usually the most heart-felt, the way which technology can interfere the least in the way of the emotion.”

Both the Criterion Collection’s DVD and Blu-Ray releases of The Last Temptation of Christ also feature a decent interview with Peter Gabriel, who scored the film. Gabriel talks a little about how he and Scorsese worked toward “avoid[ing] the clichés of Christ goes to the movies […] Marty had some strong opinions of some people he wanted me to integrate and whose work he wanted me to play with. I spent some time in the National Sound Archive doing some research and trying to educate myself a bit. And although I didn’t try and master Arabic scales, I was just trying to soak in some of the feelings and find key performers that could bring power and passion.”

Other Interesting Trivia: Also according to Ehrenstein’s liner notes, director Franco Zeffirelli pulled his Young Toscanini from the 1988 Venice Film Festival line-up when he heard that Temptation would also be screening that year. Zeffirelli hadn’t yet seen Scorsese's film when he made that appropriately theatrical gesture. But he still was outraged by Temptation, saying that it was “truly horrible and completely deranged.”