The stormy debate over Jesus and sex

Brian D. Johnson August 15 1988

The stormy debate over Jesus and sex

Brian D. Johnson August 15 1988

The stormy debate over Jesus and sex


In Hollywood, there is no star bigger than God. And the biblical epic once seemed the ideal answer to the widening expanse of the big screen. Moses parted the Red Sea in 1923’s The Ten Commandments, and again in the 1956 remake. Each time, the only reaction expected from the audience was awe. But with this week’s première of director Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, audiences are about to witness some revelations of a more provocative sort (page 55). Based on the 1951 novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ has aroused more controversy than any Hollywood movie in recent


The debate revolves around the movie’s portrayal of Jesus Christ as a character with human frailties and sexual desires. In the most contentious scenes—a dream sequence —

Christ makes love with Mary Magdalene, marries her and then settles down to a normal family life. Many American evangelists have launched a fullscale crusade against the movie, going so far as to prophesy that God himself may intervene to block its release.

Last week, as media coverage of the controversy mounted, Universal Pictures moved to rush Temptation into release on Aug. 12, a month earlier than planned. “I was extremely relieved,” Scorsese told Maclean’s on the weekend. “With all these accusations flying around, all we can say is, go see the movie.” The director, a Roman Catholic, added: “The conservative elements of the church won’t like it. But it isn’t made for clerics. It’s made for people who don’t think about God and who need a spiritual experience.”

At a screening in New York City last month, Scorsese showed a rough cut of the movie to about 30 North American church leaders. The movie drew mixed reviews from the clerics, but none declared support for the evangelists’ boycott calls. Rev. Randy Naylor, general secretary of communications of the

United Church of Canada, attended the Manhattan screening. “I think it’s a good-quality movie,” he said. “It presents an image of Jesus that contradicts the idea people have of him as a strong, decisive, visionary, charismatic leader. Instead, there is a constant struggle between what he thinks God wants him to do and what he wants to do himself.” But evangelical leaders, who turned

down invitations to see the movie, have launched an unusual holy war against its release. Bill Bright, founder-president of the California-based Campus Crusade for Christ, offered Universal Pictures $12 million to buy the movie— with the avowed intention of burning all copies. Meanwhile, demonstrators have picketed the house of MCA-Universal chairman Lew Wasserman. And last week, a group called Concerned Women for America placed an advertisement in The Wall Street Journal asking shareholders to withdraw their shares in MCA Inc., Universal’s parent firm.

However, Canadian evangelists have taken a more reasoned position. Brian Stiller, executive director of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, said, “We can only wish that some evangelicals had dared to attend the prescreening in New York to provide us with an accu-

rate assessment.” For his part, Scorsese takes offence at any suggestion that he has depicted Christ as a sinner. “The frustrating thing,” he said, “is that 90 per cent of the people haven’t seen the movie—and never will.”

For Scorsese, 45, the righteous storm over the movie is the final tribulation in a long, hard—and intensely personal— struggle to bring a biblical epic to the

screen. The director’s religious ambitions date back to his'childhood. Of Sicilian descent, he grew up in a part of New York’s Lower East Side that he says was “a feudal society based on greed and run by organized crime coexisting with the church.” Scorsese turned to the church. He had dreams of becoming a missionary priest, and his parents enrolled him in a New York seminary school at age 14. “But I started to daydream a lot,” he recalled. “You start to see girls, you fall in love, without ever touching them.”

Before the year was out, he was expelled for bad grades and moved to a local high school. Later, at New York University, he began studying film and embarked on his directing career. But he remained fascinated by the gospel. After graduating in 1964, he wrote a script for a Jesus story, which he

planned to film in news-reel style in contemporary New York, “with the Crucifixion taking place on the East Side docks.” But after seeing Pier Pasolini’s 1964 film The Gospel According to St. Matthew and being very moved by it, he says, his own project became redundant.

Then, while the novice director was filming Boxcar Bertha in 1972, actress Barbara Hershey gave him a copy of the novel by Kazantzakis (who died in 1957). “You must make this movie,” she said, “and when you do, I’ve got to play Mary Magdalene.” Scorsese recalls that he became fascinated by the book’s notion of a Christ who is “fully divine and fully human, with feelings of rage, lust and greed, this god who came down to earth and suffered just as we suffered.”

During the 1970s, Scorsese went on to make tough films about secular torment and redemption in urban America— Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Having become one of the world’s most acclaimed directors, he persuaded executives at Paramount Pictures Corp. in 1983 to let him make The Last Temptation of Christ with Aidan Quinn (Reckless) starring as Jesus. The sets were built on location in Jerusalem, but as rumors about the script spread through the United States, Paramount was flooded with letters of protest from Christian fundamentalists. Studio executives were also concerned about the movie’s escalating budget. Four weeks before shooting was to start, they cancelled the film. Scorsese says that he did not complain. He added, “It was as if God were telling me I wasn’t ready.”

After making The Color of Money with Paul Newman in 1986, Scorsese revived the project with backing from Universal. He enlisted the same supporting cast—including Harvey Keitel as Judas, Hershey as Mary Magdalene and Harry Dean Stanton as Saul/

Paul. But Willem Dafoe, fresh from his Christ-like death scene in Platoon, would star as Christ.

And Scorsese teamed up with Time magazine writer Jay Cocks to fine-tune the script by Paul Schrader, who wrote Taxi Driver.

But Hollywood was not going to make it easy. Nervous executives at MCA-Universal limited the cost to $8 millionless than half the Paramount budget. The director faced the excruciating challenge of creating a 2/2-hour epic on a shoestring. The stars worked for union

scale, and Scorsese drew no salary. With his fourth wife, Barbara de Fina, producing, he recalled: “The shooting was as tightly controlled as a commando operation. There was just a sense of getting it done and staying alive.”

In his youth, Scorsese says, he used to love watching such extravagant biblical epics as The Robe. But with such a tight budget, he had to compress his epic to an intimate scale, without the proverbial cast of thousands. The location was moved to Morocco. And during the

shoot, he recalled, he was aware that directors Steven Spielberg (Empire of the Sun) and Bernardo Bertolucci (The Last Emperor) were in China making period epics with thousands of extras in a single frame. “The biggest crowd I had,” he said, “was 135 people in the temple. We squeezed them down the pathways to make them look like more.

For the Romans, we only had five stuntmen, so I had to do the old lowbudget trick of photographing the same ones over and over. I got very depressed.”

But he persisted. And the resultregardless of its theological merits— is a technical triumph. Recreating ancient Israel in the sands and villages of Morocco, Scorsese invests Temptation with an anthropological wealth of Arabic, Roman and African icons. He also depicts the brutal reality of human crucifixion in excruciating detail, an aspect of the film that is “helpful,” according to the United Church’s Naylor. “We tend to gloss over the physical reality of the event,” he said, “passing over Good Friday and moving right on to Easter Sunday.” Added Naylor: “Some people say that Universal is recrucifying Christ on celluloid. But that final scene, where he decides to stay on the cross, is a very powerful restatement of the Easter message.”

Scorsese realizes that he has taken a major artistic risk. “When the main character is God,” he said, “you’re definitely out on a limb.” But the audience will embrace or reject Temptation as a movie, not a sacrament. And the script’s final words, spoken by Christ on the cross, could easily refer to Scorsese’s personal mission: “It is accomplished.”