After the heated public debate over a film that no one had seen, the experience of finally watching "The Last Temptation of Christ," for me, came as a resounding disappointment. It turns out that the film itself is considerably less interesting than the controversy surrounding it.
Unfortunately, the bitter attacks by fundamentalist Christians aimed at Universal Studios and the movie's creators may work in a strange way to protect the film. In conversation with my colleagues, I've learned that some of them plan to hold back from giving this painfully boring picture the scathing reviews it so richly deserves. According to their reasoning, if we savage "Last Temptation" in public we would seem to be allying ourselves with the crude showboating of the Rev. R.L. Hymers Jr. and the film's other hysterical opponents.But mock crucifixions and doomsday pronouncements must not discourage us from an honest assessment of the movie's many shortcomings, nor should the continuing controversy about this specific film obscure the larger issues raised by its release.
The protesters are correct on one point at least: Martin Scorsese's film is only the latest and most flagrant example of Hollywood's consistent hostility toward organized religion.
This attitude is a relatively recent development in movie history. In the past, the major studios churned out Biblical blockbusters such as "The Ten Commandments," "The Robe" and "Ben-Hur," specifically designed to appeal to religious sensibilities. If contemporary clergymen appeared on screen (as played by Bing Crosby, Pat O'Brien or even Spencer Tracy), they tended to be kindly and concerned, if not downright heroic.
In the last 10 to 15 years mainstream moviemakers have moved to the other extreme. If someone turns up in a film today wearing a clerical collar, or bearing the title "Reverend," he is sure to be crazy, corrupt or both. The followers of these mad hypocrites most often are portrayed as emotionally crippled individuals unable to deal with the real world.
The Catholic Church has become a particularly popular target. Recent big-budget productions show priests breaking their vows of chastity ("Monsignor," "The Runner Stumbles," "The Thorn Birds"), a nun murdering her baby ("Agnes of God"), or well-intentioned idealists who are overwhelmed by the pervasive cynicism and hypocrisy of the church hierarchy ("True Confessions," "Mass Appeal," "The Mission").
Protestant pastors fare no better, with libidinous evangelists savagely satirized in such independent features of the last two years as "Pass The Ammo," "Salvation" and "Riders of the Storm."
The negative attitude toward religious figures has become so pervasive that it turns up even in pictures where you would never expect it. "Light of Day," a 1987 stinker written and directed by "Last Temptation" screenwriter Paul Schrader, starred Michael J. Fox as a blue-collar kid struggling to make it as leader of a rock band. A key plot point involved the deflowering of the hero's sister, and the fathering of her out-of-wedlock child, by the family's pompous and outwardly pious minister. Even more recently, in this summer's horror remake "The Blob," the bespectacled small-town preacher (Del Close) turns out to be a secret drunk. The last sequence in the movie features his crazed sermon threatening the end of the world, as he fiendishly contrives to bring the title monster back to earth.
Nor is Jesus Christ the first biblical hero victimized by Hollywood's current passion for religious revisionism. In 1985 the movie industry unleashed a $25 million dollar fiasco called "King David," starring Richard Gere in the title role, and dismissed by some critics as "An Israelite and a Gentleman." The conclusion of the movie, with no scriptural or historical basis whatsoever, showed the aged King of Israel renouncing his faith in God while he angrily smashed a model of the proposed Temple in Jerusalem.
What makes these hostile treatments of religious life and values so destructive and unfair is that they are so seldom answered by mainstream films that offer a more favorable view of the subject. The only pictures in recent years to provide an even vaguely sympathetic treatment of organized religion are set either in exotic rural enclaves ("Witness," "Tender Mercies") or in the heroic past ("Chariots of Fire").
What is most conspicuously missing in the menu of recent big studio films is even one serious picture showing religion as a positive, healthy force in the everyday life of urban Americans. Every study of the subject proves that tens of millions of people in this country remain deeply committed to religious values and practices; according to several surveys, more than 40 percent of the population attends church or synagogue every week. Not all of these people are ignorant fools, or the dupes of double-talking holy roller charlatans. Many are worldly and educated people - attorneys, humanities professors, microbiologists - even movie critics. When is the last time that a Hollywood production has reflected their reality, showing us scenes, even in passing, of religion's tremendous power to enrich and ennoble our day-to-day existence?
By ignoring the positive aspects of organized faith, the movie business manages to alienate a huge segment of its potential audience. Recent market surveys show that more than one-third of the public declines to attend even a single feature film in the course of a year. Surely one of the reasons that many of them feel so little interest in Hollywood's offerings is that they see their deepest values so rarely reflected - or even respected - on screen.
There are many serious questions about the Gospel according to Hollywood that deserve to be discussed long after the tempest over "The Last Temptation of Christ" has spent its fury.
If that discussion takes place - if the movie industry develops a new understanding of the importance of religious faith to so many Americans - then the current controversy may end up generating some light to go along with all the heat.
* Michael Medved is co-host of the nationally televised movie review show "Sneak Previews" and author of seven non-fiction books.