August 13, 1988 | By Jorge Casuso and Charles Mount.
“The Last Temptation of Christ” opened in Chicago and eight other cities Friday, with protesters contending that the movie’s portrayal of Jesus is blasphemous, while some movie-goers praised it as “a powerful emotional experience.”
At the peak of the protest, Chicago police said, about 675 shouting, placard-waving demonstrators picketed in front of the Biography Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., where the controversial film is being shown here.
“One day, you will have to stand before the Judge,” one demonstrator shouted.
The demonstration did not deter the hundreds holding a different view who flocked to the 800-seat movie house for all four showings of the film.
Most of those demonstrating were members of various Christian denominations, including a large Greek Orthodox contingent at the Biography who chanted, sang hymns and carried crosses and replicas of icons.
But not all protesters were Christians.
Among those in front of the Ziegfeld Theater in New York was Rabbi Yosef Friedman, an Orthodox Jew who carried a sign reading, “Rabbis Protest Mockery of Any Religion.”
Outside the Biography was a group of 25 to 30 Moslems from the Islamic Circle of North America, carrying a sign reading “Islam for Dignity of Jesus.”
“Christ showed us the right way,” said Irfan Sarwar, one of the group.
“We believe in Jesus as a prophet, but, still, prophets don’t commit any sins.”
The protesters at the Biography didn`t try to physically stop anyone from entering the theater, but they crowded up close to the ticket booth passing out leaflets and urging movie-goers to change their minds about seeing the film.
“When you get to the ticket booth, they really put it to you,” said a woman who declined to give her name. “I was met within three minutes by a Muslim, a Catholic and other people.”
Similar protests were played out in the other cities where the movie is being shown: Los Angeles, Washington, San Francisco, Seattle, Minneapolis, New York, Toronto and Montreal.
Uniformed security guards checked purses and bags of movie patrons in New York, Los Angeles and Toronto, and guards also stood alongside screens in those cities, but no disturbances were reported.
Protesters have condemned the film, saying it portrays Christ as a deranged and lust-driven human.
Defenders say the film illustrates the central mystery of Christianity, showing a fully human Jesus wrestling with doubts and temptation.
Fred Brancher, who watched the movie at the Biograph, said he enjoyed it and found it to be a powerful experience.
“A lot of people will be shocked because they haven`t realized what Christ went through,” said Brancher, a psychotherapist, who added that he “couldn`t see anything contrary to (Christian) doctrine, except the details.”
But Rev. Nikitas Lulias, a Greek Orthodox priest who was among the protesters outside the theater, took a different view.
“The movie distorts the historical and theological truth,” said Father Lulias, one of the few protesters who said he had seen the film.
“They portrayed Christ as a sick and demented individual,” he said.
“Christ was a perfect God and a perfect man. That`s what theology teaches.”
The 1955 novel, “Last Temptation,” by Nikos Kazantzakis, on which the movie is based, has been denounced as heresy by the Greek Orthodox Church.
Father Lulias said the goal of the protesters was to stop the movie from being shown.
Plitt Theaters Inc., owner of the Biograph, filed suit Friday in Cook County Circuit Court, seeking a court order banning picketing within 500 feet of the movie house.
Father Lulias was among those named as defendants, along with the Moody Bible Institute and others, in Plitt’s petition for an injunction.
No action was taken on the petition before the courts closed. But court officials said an emergency hearing could be held at any time over the weekend if necessary.
In the Jury Room, a tavern across the street from the Biograph, several patrons said they were drawn to the movie by publicity linked to the protests. “I never even heard of the movie,” said Tracy Lamb, a Jury Room patron. “But when I saw them” she said, pointing at the demonstrators, “I said, `I gotta go.` Now I can`t wait to see it.”
Mike Lavelle, another Jury Room patron, was among several in the tavern who praised the movie-goers and the protesters. “This is vintage America.” he said. “I wouldn’t live in a country where this couldn’t happen.”
Hours before the film was to open, a group of directors including Warren Beatty, James L. Brooks, Peter Bogdanovich, Michael Mann, Sydney Pollack and Walter Hill called a news conference in Los Angeles to express support for the film`s director, Martin Scorsese. Scorsese, a Roman Catholic, says his film is an affirmation of his faith. In Boston, Bernard Cardinal Law, the Catholic archbishop, urged Catholics to boycott the film, calling it “morally offensive and repugnant to Christian belief.”