Martin Scorsese's latest film, ``The Last Temptation of Christ,'' has become enveloped in religious controversy well before its scheduled September release. Based on Nikos Kazantzakis's 1951 novel of the same name, a book the Greek Orthodox Church deemed heretical, the film is said to examine the human side of Christ Jesus and his ``last temptation,'' the possibility that he could avoid death on the cross and live out his life as a man.
At a press conference here Tuesday, the Rev. John Lloyd Ogilvie, senior pastor of the Hollywood Presbyterian Church, called the film ``the most serious misuse of movie craft in the history of moviemaking.'' He predicted it will add to ``the spiritual confusion in America. It will disturb and distort the life of Jesus for those who are thinking about Christianity. It will hurt and destroy those who have begun the Christian life....''
Filmmaker Scorsese, who once studied for the priesthood, however, contends the picture, which stars, Willem Dafoe as Jesus, David Bowie as Pontius Pilate, and Barbara Hershey as Mary Magdalene, ``will serve as a reaffirmation of faith to members of the Christian community.''
Members of several Christian denominations joined Reverend Ogilvie in denouncing the film as a gross distortion of the life of Jesus. Some threatened a boycott of businesses owned by Universal Pictures' parent company, MCA, unless the studio agreed to destroy the picture. Some 61 detractors signed an ad in the Monday issue of the Hollywood Reporter, a trade paper, and several participated in the Tuesday press conference to protest the film at the Registry Hotel here at Universal City.
Few, if any, of the protesters have actually seen the film, though, saying they refused Universal's invitation to a screening as a form of protest. They base their criticism on two scripts and on the comments of an unnamed source inside Universal Pictures, which will co-distribute the film with Cineplex Odeon.
Other religious leaders did attend a New York screening Tuesday, and at least some, including a representative for the National Council of Churches, came away with a more positive view of the film.
Here is a sample of the range of opinion:
James Dobson, president of the Pomona, Calif.-based Focus on the Family ministry, called the movie ``the most blasphemous evil attack on the church and the cause of Christ in the history of entertainment'' and asked for a boycott of MCA in a Monday radio broadcast aired on 1,200 stations.
At the press conference, Larry W. Poland, president of Mastermedia International, a support and counseling organization, read a prepared statement summing up objections of a coalition consisting of former consultants to Universal Pictures on the ``Last Temptation'' project and religious leaders here in southern California.
The statement charged that the film portrays Christ as ``a mentally deranged and lust-driven man who convinces Judas Iscariot to betray him, whose own mother, Mary, declares him crazy, and, who, in a dream sequence, comes down off the cross and has a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene, all of which ... violates every historical evidence of the character and life of Jesus.''
Besides Mr. Poland, other members of the coalition include Jack Hayford, senior pastor of Church on the Way in Van Nuys; Bill Bright, president of the Campus Crusade for Christ, International, at Lake Arrowhead; Tim Penland, president of Penland Productions in Burbank; and Mr. Ogilvie.
One religious spokesman who attended the New York screening of the film is David Pomeroy, director for media resources of the communication commission of the National Council of Churches, a mainline ecumenical body with 32 member churches representing 40 million members. In a phone coversation after the screening, he characterized the film, written by Paul Schrader, as ``an interesting movie and a faithful representation of the Kazantzakis book.'' He went on to say, ``It emphasizes the humanness of Christ, particularly in terms of fears and uncertainties that stalk him as he strives to understand the will of God in his life.
``The key point,'' Mr. Pomeroy continues, ``which is being missed by the critics ... is that, in the final analysis, he rejects this temptation and recognizes that, in fact, his sacrificial death is ... essential to God's plan for him and for the world. Therefore the ultimate point to bring away from the movie is a high understanding of atonement.''
A statement Universal issued in response to the critics says the script in circulation was an ``early version,'' and that it differs from the film ``in a great many key and important ways.''