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Scorsese in the Wake of ‘Temptation’

Times Arts Editor

Martin Scorsese settles into a banquette at the Russian Tea Room for lunch with a visitor. The furor over “The Last Temptation of Christ” has simmered down but not disappeared. The film continues its long runs in small cinemas here and abroad. It appeared on several Best 10 lists and it may well hover in mind when Motion Picture Academy voters are marking their Oscar nomination ballots.

Scorsese himself has since made a 44-minute film that will be one-third of “New York Stories,” with other segments by Woody Allen, who conceived the project, and Francis Coppola. He is preparing a new film, “Wise Guy,” based on the book by Nicholas Pileggi about a Mafia figure in the early 1960s. The setting is the Lower East Side, Scorsese’s home turf, where his film-making career began with “Who’s That Knocking on My Door” and “Mean Streets.”

“The real craziness about all the fuss over ‘Last Temptation’ is the charge that Universal made it to make money,” Scorsese said. “Hollywood doesn’t come to me to make money. That’s not my thing. My films don’t lose money but they don’t make much either. ‘The Color of Money’ did nicely, but the below-the-line cost on it was only $1.5 million. It was very efficiently prepared.”

As it was, “Last Temptation” was made for less than $7 million, an amazing price, considering that it was made entirely on foreign locations. It would have cost less than that except for the rising notoriety, which forced an expensive speed-up in post-production. “Tom Pollock would have been happy to break even, before the storm broke. He and Lew Wasserman deserve medals for standing up to all the pressure.”

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“We only had five stunt men,” Scorsese says, “and we kept panning over the same five guys again and again. For our biggest scene, when Christ drives the money-changers out of the temple, we had 130 extras. I hope it looks like more. I kept reading reviews about the thousands of extras on ‘Empire of the Sun’ and ‘Last Emperor,’ and I sighed a lot.”

Barbara Hershey, with whom Scorsese worked on one of his early films, “Boxcar Bertha,” had brought him the Kazantzakis novel several years ago. “It took me a few years to get around to reading it but then I was enamored of it. I began to plan it on paper five years ago.”

One of the critics’ reservations about “Last Temptation” had to do with the accents, which occasionally suggested the Lower East Side more than the Middle East.

“But one of the London reviewers defended the accents,” says Scorsese. “He said, ‘Where is it written that the Palestinians learned to talk by listening to the BBC?’ ”

The problem was to find an equivalent for the demotic or vernacular Greek that Kazantzakis had used to convey the ordinary speech of Christ’s followers. “The Galilean was an outsider, not involved in the orthodox religion, and I’m told that the Galileans spoke with a thick accent, thicker than a heavy Southern accent would be today.”

Much of the controversy surrounding the film (before anyone had seen it) was based on the first-draft script by Paul Schrader, which Universal released informationally as evidence of Scorsese’s and the studio’s honorable intentions. Schrader wrote a subsequent script and Scorsese himself did considerable work on the final, shooting script, with Jay Cocks, the former Time film critic, as an uncredited collaborator.

The intention, always, Scorsese says, was to give the story an immediacy and a relevance to an audience that may have dismissed the idea of faith. The hope was to create a sense “of being there the first time the familiar biblical words were said,” and to see all the drama inherent in a figure both human and divine.

In all his writing, Kazantzakis was engrossed by the conflict of the spirit and the flesh. And in “Last Temptation,” he was engrossed by the anguish of the God-man.

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“Paul (Schrader) always said, ‘Let’s be true to the emotions,’ ” Scorsese remembered. “There is even some humor in the film.” Scorsese cited specifically the moment when the risen Lazarus is asked how he’s feeling. “The audiences seem to pick up on it more than the critics did,” Scorsese says wryly.

The furor arising from what had been a labor of love for all of those involved took Scorsese aback, although he feels that a relatively small number of far-right fundamentalists drew a disproportionate amount of attention. They have assured “Last Temptation” a place in film history, and a box-office performance better than anyone had anticipated.

Scorsese’s contribution to “New York Stories,” written by Richard Price and based on a diary kept by Dostoevsky’s assistant, is a comedy with Nick Nolte as a SoHo painter in the ‘40s and Rosanna Arquette as the secretary he imagines can help him over a painter’s block. It is, in a sense, about temptation.


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