By David GroganDavid Lustig and David Marlow
Updated August 08, 1988 12:00 PM

On location in the Moroccan desert for 62 days and nights last winter, film director Martin Scorsese found himself wondering whether this was his time in the wilderness. He had waited 15 years to make this movie of Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel on the life of Jesus, and the frustration of meeting the artistic challenge in a Spartan encampment was proving almost more than he could bear. When a violent rainstorm ripped the top off several sets, washed out roads and disrupted shooting on The Last Temptation of Christ for two days, Scorsese cursed the heavens. Staging the greatest story ever told on his less-than-pharaonic budget of $6.5 million was already requiring daily cinematic miracles, and he had neither time nor money to spare. On the bright side, the director felt that all this inconvenience was bringing him closer to his subject somehow. “It was important this film be made in a special way, under great hardship,” says Scorsese, 45. “I wanted to get more on a one-to-one level with God, without anything in the way.”

In fact, the tribulations Scorsese experienced in filming Last Temptation are nothing compared with the righteous wrath that has exploded around him in anticipation of the movie’s scheduled release in late September. Based on Kazantzakis’ acclaimed novel, Last Temptation of Christ portrays a troubled and vacillating Jesus who accepts only reluctantly his role as Messiah and martyr. As played by Willem Dafoe, Scorsese’s Jesus is anything but the divine-to-the-core, celluloid saint depicted in the standard according-to-Hollywood Bible epic. “When this Jesus walks into a room,” says Scorsese, “he doesn’t glow in the dark.” Possessed of fundamental human frailties, this movie Savior, more man than God, is even tempted to escape his fate on the cross. In a crucial 35-minute dream sequence, which occurs during his crucifixion, Christ explores the road not taken, and marries and makes love to the prostitute Mary Magdalene (played by Barbara Hershey), and lives to a ripe old age.

This bold departure from gospel has struck many fundamentalist Christians as shockingly sacrilegious, and, without even seeing the movie, their leaders set the nation’s wires and airwaves humming with angry denunciations. “I am appalled that anyone would even consider producing a film which portrays the Son of God as a sex-crazed mental defective,” says television evangelist and former Republican presidential candidate Pat Robertson. “No one would dare attempt a project like this which ridicules Buddha, Mohammed, Confucius or Moses.”

Once aroused, an alliance of conservative church groups launched the moral equivalent of a preemptive military strike against Last Temptation’s distributor, Universal Pictures, and its corporate parent, MCA. With pickets, organized phone and mail protests, demonstrations and threats of a boycott, the fundamentalists called for the motion picture company’s total surrender, a promise that the movie would never be released. “If I had that film in my hand tonight,” said Bill Bright, founder and head of the San Bernardino, Calif.-based Campus Crusade for Christ, “I would call together the leaders of the Christian world, and we would have a big bonfire celebration.” Bright offered Universal $10 million for all copies of the movie so that he could destroy them. Universal fought back with newspaper ads citing constitutional freedoms of religion and expression. In a rare show of unity, the rest of Hollywood’s business establishment, including seven other major studios, lined up behind Universal.

Scorsese, meanwhile, working round the clock in New York to edit and mix the sound track for Last Temptation, has been taken aback by the criticism. “I dreamed for a while that the church and clergy would like the film, and that it would stimulate positive dialogue,” he says. “What I’ve tried to create is a Jesus who, in a sense, is just like any other guy in the street. In his struggle to reach God and find God, he reflects all our struggles. I thought it would give us all hope.”

A wiry Sicilian-American with flecks of gray in his smoothly groomed black beard, Martin Scorsese speaks with a low-toned intensity in explaining how Last Temptation touched the roots of his own spirituality and became an obsession that dogged him throughout his career. In 1972 he was a novice director making Boxcar Bertha, with David Carradine, when co-star Barbara Hershey urged him to read the Kazantzakis novel. “You must make this movie,” Hershey said presciently, “and when you do, I’ve got to play Mary Magdalene.”

Scorsese was fascinated by The Last Temptation. “I was attracted to it as a psychological portrait of Jesus as a man who has to learn to accept that he is also God,” he says. “I knew I was better at dealing with a psychological portrait rather than an epic film and thought this was something within my grasp.” He optioned the movie rights and carried the book around with him for most of the next decade, rereading and savoring it, chapter by chapter.

The book spoke to him personally in a particularly unnerving way. Growing up in New York’s Little Italy as the ailing son of a clothes presser and a garment worker, Scorsese found solace for his feelings of loneliness not only in the fantasy world of the local movie houses but also in the pews of Old St. Patrick’s Catholic Church. “I was a very scrupulous Catholic,” recalls Scorsese. “I constantly went to confession and always felt a wonderful sense of cleansing afterwards.”

At age 14, he enrolled in a junior seminary, intending to become a priest. But he was expelled before the end of his first year. “I discovered girls and started dreaming,” he says, “and I let out the energy by becoming a class clown.” Graduating from high school with mediocre grades, Scorsese was refused admission to several major Catholic universities, so he turned instead to his other love. He enrolled in New York University, where he quickly emerged as a star student of film.

His alienation from the Church came during the early ’70s, says Scorsese, soon after he heard a priest defend the Vietnam War as a holy cause. Yet even though he stopped attending Mass regularly, his spirituality was often evident in his movies—so much so that one critic chided him for “trying to be the saint of the cinema.” Religious symbolism was especially apparent in Scorsese’s Raging Bull, the story of boxer Jake La Motta, which was nominated for eight Academy Awards in 1980. “People said ‘How can you make a movie about this bum? He’s no good,’ ” says Scorsese. “But his story is one of redemption.”

In 1983 Paramount finally gave Scorsese the go-ahead to film The Last Temptation with Aidan Quinn starring as Jesus. Alarmist rumors spread quickly among Christian fundamentalist groups, and Paramount was flooded with letters of protest. At the same time, studio executives grew increasingly nervous as the budget for the film began to escalate. Finally, just four weeks before shooting was to begin, Paramount backed out. “It was as if someone had died,” says Scorsese. “But I really had a sense that God was with me on this film. And when we had to stop, I figured God was telling me I just wasn’t ready.”

Scorsese moved on to other projects until the 1986 blockbuster The Color of Money re-established him as one of a handful of bankable directors able to name their next project. Scorsese dusted off the screenplay of The Last Temptation, and Universal gave the green light, though—anticipating trouble—it chose to call the project by another name, The Passion. The film went into production last October with a scaled-down budget and all the principal actors including Hershey, Harvey Keitel as Judas, and David Bowie as Pontius Pilate, working for minimum union scale. “I’ve never seen such cooperation on a film,” says Scorsese. “Everybody worked on it in a spirit of love.” With his fourth wife, Barbara De Fina, producing, Scorsese retained complete creative control of the film as well.

The good feelings began to evaporate when Universal learned that a bootlegged copy of an outdated script for Last Temptation was circulating among fundamentalists and raising a tempest. The near hysteria that resulted was due in part to an unfortunate misunderstanding. The purloined screenplay included an unforgivably lewd line, no longer in the movie, in which Christ told Mary Magdalene, “God sleeps between your legs.”

In the face of a fire storm of criticism, Universal persuaded Scorsese to let religious leaders view a rough-cut version of Last Temptation on July 12. The preview drew few complaints from the moderate clergymen who made up most of the audience. “Overall I had a very positive reaction and saw nothing blasphemous about it,” said Rev. Paul Moore, the Episcopal Bishop of New York. But two members of a Catholic film board indicated they would rate the movie as “morally offensive.”

Fundamentalist leaders boycotted the screening entirely—labeling it a public relations ploy—and stepped up the stridency of their attacks. James Dobson, a radio commentator and head of the conservative Focus on the Family ministry, suggested that the film was so blasphemous that God himself might step into the battle. “God is not mocked,” Dobson said. “I don’t know how long it will take Him to speak, but He will speak.” Singer Pat Boone called Last Temptation a “spiritual outrage, totally perverting the person in the Bible described as the Son of God.”

In the most startling protest, the Reverend R.L. Hymers Jr., a Los Angeles fundamentalist known for his extreme views, staged a crude “passion play” outside the Beverly Hills home of MCA Chairman Lew Wasserman, who is Jewish. A Christ impersonator drenched in blood knelt beneath the burden of a huge cross, while a man intended to represent Wasserman held him down with his foot. As the tasteless drama unfolded, a biplane passed overhead dragging a banner that read “Wasserman fans Jew-hatred w/ ‘Temptation.’ ”

Scorsese is troubled by the ugly tenor of the backlash and genuinely puzzled that his critics do not share his view of the movie’s message. “It’s about the last battle between God and Satan,” he says, “and God wins.” Unpersuaded, the United Artists Theaters chain, which controls 2,000 screens nationwide, has already announced it will not show Last Temptation, but Scorsese insists he will be satisfied as long adjust a few theaters around the country allow moviegoers to make their own judgment. “This film for me is like a prayer,” Scorsese says. “It is my way of worshiping.”

—By David Grogan, with David Lustig and David Marlow in Los Angeles