Despite prayers, protests and a courtroom challenge, the Venice Film Festival presented Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" for the first time in Italy on Wednesday under tight security.
An anticipated demonstration by Roman Catholics, evangelical Christians and other Christians failed to materialize at the Cinema Palace, which was surrounded by at least 100 police on foot or on horseback.
Three hours before the showing, about 70 people led by four priests affiliated with excommunicated Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre protested in St. Mark's Square in central Venice. They walked behind a tall wooden cross, knelt, prayed and sang. Several carried placards reading "Scorsese's film is blasphemous" and "No one should make fun of God."
The film was labeled "an unacceptable moral offense" on Wednesday by the Italian Episcopal Conference, the country's association of Roman Catholic bishops.
About 400 followers of Lefebvre also marched against the film in Paris on Wednesday.
The fundamentalists, led by a priest carrying a cross, sang hymns and prayed as they walked through the French capital's Latin Quarter, where Paris' most important traditional church--St. Nicholas of Chardonnet--is located.
Cardinal Albert Decourtray, archbishop of Lyon, and Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, archbishop of Paris, said on Tuesday that they opposed the film's distribution because it was "a wound to the spiritual liberty of millions of men and women."
Last month, Milan attorney Pedro Bianco filed a complaint asking a judge to block screening of the film at the festival on the ground it violated Italy's laws against blasphemy.
Venice prosecutors saw the film a week ago and recommended that the judge dismiss the complaint. He instead postponed a decision.
Film critics in Italy and England have given the film bad notices. Most critics found little aesthetic merit.
"It seems sincere and honest in its involvement with God's Son's journey toward martyrdom, but the direction, screenplay and characterization are full of banalities," the Corriere della Sera newspaper said.
Italy's top circulation newspaper La Republica said the only reason for seeing the film was the controversy.
"It will do you no harm, whether you are a believer or a cinema-goer. Simply, it is a crude film full of violence, without subtlety or refinement, which will not last," the paper said.
David Robinson of the Times of London added: "The irony is . . . that 'The Last Temptation of Christ'--a serious, thoughtful, reverential and somewhat overlong religious inquest--is the kind of film which, without the furor of protest, would attract very limited audiences."
But a Church of England clergyman, the Rev. Dr. William Oddie, reviewing the movie in the Daily Telegraph, said it was "bad beyond belief" and "both theologically offensive and artistically incompetent."
Scorsese defended his film during a sometimes stormy news conference at the Venice festival earlier Wednesday, saying it was a work of fiction and that he did not intend to change anyone's beliefs.
"The film for me is an act of faith," said the American director, who struggled at times to be heard above the din of reporters.
When reporters were told they could ask questions, some gave short impassioned speeches instead about the film. Many journalists loudly jeered colleagues who suggested the film was profane.
Scorsese said if Christ did not have a human side, it would have been easy to overcome temptation and die on the cross. But being a man gave him an understanding of human problems, weaknesses and suffering, the director said.