NEW YORK — Director Martin Scorsese gave some liberal, mainline Christians the first look at his controversial, all-but-finished film "The Last Temptation of Christ," and most came away favorably impressed.
"Overall, I had a very, very positive reaction. I saw nothing blasphemous in it," said Episcopal Bishop Paul Moore of New York.
Like others interviewed, Moore accepted the reminder by Scorsese in his brief remarks at the secrecy-shrouded screening that the movie is based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, not on the Gospels. Nevertheless, some said the film powerfully stated the human struggle of Jesus, which has a biblical basis and could stimulate fruitful discussion in churches.
The 30 to 40 Protestant and Catholic officials who accepted the invitation to the Tuesday screening expressed only personal and preliminary opinions, pending the announced Sept. 23 release of the film by Universal Pictures.
But if first impressions are indicative, Universal should have some ammunition to combat protests and threatened boycotts of the film from conservative Christians, principally evangelical Protestants. Evangelicals have based their opposition on early versions of the movie script--which, it turns out, differ from the movie--at least in one lovemaking scene.
Picketers--eight Catholics carrying cardboard crosses inscribed "Universal Crucifies Christ"--found the hotel gathering point for people invited to the screening.
But the actual screening site was undisclosed even to the invitees until shortly before vans whisked them off to a theater on 23rd Street. Nor were they told why Universal was giving them the sneak preview, but the invitation list was a tip-off: It included representatives from Fundamentalists Anonymous and clergy-officials of People for the American Way--two organizations critical of the religious right--and a liberal American Baptist pastor from Evanston, Ill., who had phoned Universal to side with them against fundamentalist objections.
The film was 2 hours and 38 minutes long, about the length Scorsese said it would be in its completed version. Several religious officials thought it could stand shortening.
"It was a long, demanding film," said poet-activist Daniel Berrigan, who was a consultant to and had a small part in the film "The Mission." Noting that Scorsese spent years thinking about how to translate the novel to the screen, Berrigan said the least he could do was to "think about it a few days" before commenting.
Andrea Cano, communications officer for the U.S. office for the World Council of Churches, said she personally "perceived it as an art film, not a religious film." Yet, Cano said she thought it could be useful in church settings as a videocassette accompanied by a study guide.
Evangelicals have objected to a scene, described in at least one surreptitiously circulated version of the script by Paul Schrader, where Jesus dreams he is making love to Mary Magdalene and praises her with the words, "God sleeps between your legs." No one could remember that being said in the film, nor did Jesus agree to comply with his guardian angel's request to watch him making love--dialogue found in the script.
No one who was interviewed termed the movie blasphemous. "Most of us don't know how to spell the word," quipped one invitee, explaining that liberal Christians tend to be more tolerant of ambiguities in biblical interpretation and in artistic interpretations of faith.
Nevertheless, two Lutherans emphasized that they felt the movie was not an affront to Christians. Robert E. A. Lee, who formerly reviewed movies for the Lutheran magazine, said he disagreed with some interpretations of the Jesus story but Scorsese's "handling was not disrespectful or insensitive to believers."
The Rev. Charles Bergstrom, former Washington lobbyist for Lutherans and chairman of People for the American Way's executive committee, said, "I was not offended in any way Scripture was used and applied. Obviously, a lot of imagination about what might have been done and said was used, but sermons in church also do that."
A scene in the movie which Lee, Bergstrom and others cited as objectionable was one in which Jesus says, "I give my heart to you," then physically pulls his heart out of his body.
That episode was one of many miracles performed, said the Rev. Eugene Schneider, a public relations officer with the United Church of Christ headquarters. Speaking with exaggeration, Schneider said, "I thought there was a miracle included for every fundamentalist around."
The miraculous attributes of Jesus notwithstanding, several clergy said the movie will challenge Christians to re-examine the Christian doctrine that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine.