Certain films have become so inseparable from the controversies surrounding them that watching without thought to the furor becomes almost impossible. The protests greeting Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation Of Christ upon its 1988 release reached such a fevered pitch that the film itself, one of the finest achievements of Scorsese's career, became almost an afterthought. Cooler heads never quite prevailed—try renting it at most Blockbuster stores even today—but time has helped place things in perspective, allowing Temptation to be seen as the radical, profound, unabashedly reverent film it's always been. An adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis' sprawling novel, the film deals explicitly with the sacred paradox of the figure of Jesus: What does it mean to be both fully human and fully divine? As scripted by Paul Schrader and played by Willem Dafoe (who pulls off a nearly impossible performance), it means to struggle. Scorsese's film presents a Jesus so fraught with conflict and doubt—emotions immediately familiar to anyone who's ever struggled with faith—that understanding His humanity never becomes an issue. It's this immediacy, despite the impressive recreation of the first-century Middle East, that best defines Temptation. What Scorsese has done, presenting a version of the Christ story filled with the sort of direct dialogue and troubled relationships of his contemporary films, comes from an impulse akin to that behind the creation of medieval passion plays: This is God speaking and acting in a way recognizably our own, God made one of us. It's Scorsese's most personal film—certainly the one he fought the hardest to get made—and an important step in his artistic development. After the last-minute cancellation of a 1983 version (to have starred Aidan Quinn), he made it years later at about half the budget. Devoid of the throngs of extras that characterize the swords-and-sandals biblical epics of the '50s and '60s, Temptation has a different, scaled-back sort of intensity. A charming, thoroughly reasonable Pontius Pilate (David Bowie) condemns Dafoe to death out of political expediency, an unthinkingly made decision that will shape the next two millennia in ways he can't imagine. The last temptation of the title feels like the domestic idyll of a western. In his version of the grandest story ever overtold, Scorsese makes the details speak volumes. It's interesting to hear the director reflect upon this and other moments years later with Schrader, Dafoe, and longtime collaborator Jay Cocks on this new DVD's audio commentary track—which, along with Scorsese's video journal, an interview with composer Peter Gabriel, and various archival materials, nicely elucidates the film. Even they can't avoid talking about the controversy, which has by now become part of the story of The Last Temptation Of Christ. And maybe it should be. The power to provoke may not always have a smoke-to-fire relationship with greatness (Basic Instinct, anyone?), but with Scorsese's film, a testament of faith that leaves in the question marks, it undeniably does.
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