The Last Temptation of Christ
The Last Temptation of Christ, by Martin Scorsese, is a towering achievement. Though it initially engendered enormous controversy, the film can now be viewed as the remarkable, profoundly personal work of faith that it is. This fifteen-year labor of love, an adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s landmark novel that imagines an alternate fate for Jesus Christ, features outstanding performances by Willem Dafoe, Barbara Hershey, Harvey Keitel, Harry Dean Stanton, and David Bowie; bold cinematography by the great Michael Ballhaus; and a transcendent score by Peter Gabriel.
Criterion delivers Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ on a dual-layer Blu-ray disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 in a 1080p/24hz high-definition digital transfer. I’m not sure if this is the same transfer used for the DVD but it does look, I feel, substantially better so I wouldn’t be surprised if this was new, but the notes on the transfer between the DVD and Blu-ray editions are almost identical. Still, in either case I do feel a mild case of being underwhelmed.
Yes, it’s far more filmic in comparison to the DVD, and it looks as though either the materials are in better condition or a more thorough restoration has been done because there are far fewer blemishes here in comparison to what the DVD presented. The image is fairly sharp with some nice details, doesn’t present any halos that I could detect, where the DVD had plenty, and despite its drab look the film’s colours appear to pop a little better here, specifically the reds of the opening titles and blues present in the sky. Blacks can appear washed in places but they’re generally acceptable and are not a big issue.
Still, despite its obvious pluses I found myself mildly let down. Part of my disappointment may simply be just how it was shot and these issues could be inherent in the original source, so maybe I was expecting something not possible. Though I did say it was sharp I still felt some of the finer details were a bit murky, whether it is hairs on the actors’ heads or textures in clothing. And yes even if it is just how the film was shot it still looks a bit flat and has very little depth to it, despite the film’s rather gorgeous photography. Film grain is mostly rendered well but some of the film’s grainier sequences can come off a bit noisy and there were many moments where close-ups can present blocking patterns that dance around a bit.
I’d say as a whole it’s clean, and yes, it’s a big improvement over the DVD, but taking into account some minor issues with the digital transfer, and maybe how the film was shot, I do feel tinges of disappointment.
Update March 19, 2012: Second guessing myself and probably wanting to see something there that wasn't made me give this too high a score I think. Revisiting the disc the transfer is actually more problematic than I originally saw. There are more blocking issues than I had originally noticed (I missed rather obvious patterns in the various flames that appear in the film) and the reason for the flat, somewhat muddy look may actually have to do with the transfer, which is suspected by many, as I did fear a little, to be just an upgrade of the same one used for the DVD. I still think it looks decent and is still not on the level of bad as Criterion's The Last Emperor Blu-ray, but it's even more disappointing. For the sake of keeping history and admitting my mistakes I did give the video an 8/10 originally but now have to drop it to a 7/10.
The DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround track does offer a substantial improvement on the other hand, and this is probably one of the livelier surround presentations from Criterion. Similar to the DVD’s Dolby Digital track it has a lot going on, with music impressively filling out the environment, mixed stunningly between all of the speakers and making great use of the lower channel, but never overly so. Sound effects are also mixed effectively with natural movements occurring around the viewer, and though music and effects are loud they never drown out the dialogue, which is clear and articulate throughout. Audio quality is stunning, with nary an imperfection or any sort of distortion; it’s clean and crystal clear, even when it reaches the louder moments. In all it’s a stunning soundtrack and one that will nicely show off your sound system.
The previous DVD edition ported over everything from Criterion’s original laserdisc edition but unfortunately not everything has made it over to this Blu-ray. As usual text material gets left off, and though this may not be too big an issue for most the text material excluded here was actually fascinating research material that offered some fascinating historical information. But more on that later.
First up is an excellent audio commentary by Scorsese, screenwriter Paul Schrader, Willem Dafoe, and Jay Cocks. As was common with Criterion’s older tracks the participants have been split up and recorded on their own then edited together here. Dominated mostly by Scorsese the track goes over the film’s troubled production beginning in 1983 when he originally tried to get the film made at Paramount, and then the research that went into the film that he hoped would lend it authenticity. Schrader talks about the monumental task of adapting the book and widdling it down to its most essential aspects with Cocks occasionally chiming in on his participation (he came in when Schrader went off to make Mishima.) There’s mention of some of the original casting choices (for the role of Jesus, Schrader and Scorsese had De Niro in mind, though he turned it down, and then Eric Roberts, Christopher Walken, and Aidan Quinn were also considered before Dafoe was cast,) tricks to stretching the budget, anecdotes from the set, and then of course the controversy that surrounded the film. Dafoe disappointingly only chimes in with anecdotes for the most part, but he offers a few amusing stories. All in all, it’s an informative and incredibly entertaining track.
Following this is a costume design gallery that you navigate using the arrows on your remote. The gallery contains about 40 images made up of sketches and publicity photos showing actors in costume. There’s also still and research displaying about 90 photos ranging from publicity stills, to behind-the-scene stills (including tests for the crucifixion), and then some research material, though only a small amount.
In comparison to the DVD the research material has been cut down substantially. The original DVD presented a much larger section where the Blu-ray only has a tiny section edited down to only a few photos. The DVD presented a lengthy text supplement covering the discovery of a corpse of a crucified man and the research that went into finding out how the man was crucified (and its similar to how the crucifixions are presented in the film) including how he would have been placed on the cross. It was incredibly lengthy, with a few fascinating photos, maps, and sketches. An issue of National Geographic, about the tattoos that appear in the film, is present on the Blu-ray but the DVD offered close-ups of the cover. There was also more text information about the paintings that influenced Scorsese, and we also got a list of films and books that Scorsese used in his research. Oddly, I think there are actually more costume design photos here along with more production photos. I’m always somewhat perplexed at why Criterion seems to refuse to port over a lot of their text material from previous DVDs, but I don’t get too worked up about it. Yet in this case there was a great deal of good material on the previous DVD that added a lot of value, especially the material involving the research that went into how crucifixions were probably performed, that didn’t make it here. If they feel text supplements are passé they could at least maybe get a scholar or historian to talk about it. It was an informative and rather interesting feature that I think will be sadly missed.
For the next supplement Scorsese took a camcorder along with him to document filming and that footage is gathered here in his location production footage. It’s interesting because it’s Scorsese (bearded Scorsese) actually shooting the material with a Camcorder so everyone acts rather loosely around him, Keitel even jokingly flipping Scorsese off a couple times. He films the sets and I guess what could be called the camps and “production offices” (trailers) that have been set up for the film. Scorsese even films himself talking about the shoot and the issues he’s come across, the tight schedule, and reflects on the work he’s accomplished. Sadly there is only less than 16-minutes worth of material here, but it still manages to offer an intriguing look into the film’s production.
There is an interview with Peter Gabriel from 1996 (probably made for the laserdisc previously released) included on here, where he discusses the moods he was trying to get and the styles he wanted to use (sometimes bordering on hard rock). In this section there is also a stills gallery displaying the instruments used (as well as photos from the recording of the score, where director Michael Powell was present) and a text introduction about how the collaboration began between Gabriel and Scorsese. The interview runs about 12-minutes.
The insert then contains an updated essay on the film by critic David Ehrenstein, who has updated it only to bash Passion of the Christ (though I get why he brings it up it almost feels unnecessary.) He goes over the controversy to some degree and questions those that spoke out against it yet never saw it. This is unfortunately the only supplement that really gets into the film’s controversy, not counting the mention in the commentary. The DVD also disappointed me in this regard and always sort of hoped for maybe a documentary similar to the one Criterion made for their release of Brazil.
In all it’s still a fairly skimpy release, even more so now since it’s actually missing all of the text supplements which I still think added some value to the DVD. But, at the very least, the commentary is still great and worth the listen.
Supplements have always been kind of skimpy when one considers the history of the film but now they feel even lighter since Criterion has decided to hold back a couple of intriguing text extras. But in comparison to the DVD both the video and audio presentations offer a big enough improvement that I think it’s worth the upgrade, even if I was expecting a little more from the overall presentation.