The Last Temptation of Christ in Wells Cathedral by Philip Raby

The culmination of several years of dreaming, and two years of planning came to fruition on the evening of Saturday 25 January 2014, when Bath Film Festival screened Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ in Wells Cathedral.

Thanks to the generosity of the Chapter of Wells Cathedral, and the Dean himself, Bath Film Festival were able to show Scorsese’s remarkable film for the first (and possibly the last) time in such an extraordinary and appropriate setting. The process started in January 2012, when a chance encounter with Archdeacon Nicola Sullivan led to a conversation with the Chapter, which resulted in them giving permission for the screening.

The next step was to enlist support from those who were involved in the making of the film. Three-time Oscar winner Thelma Schoonmaker, BFF patron and Scorsese’s long-term editor offered to attend the screening. She contacted a number of key personnel, such as Willem Dafoe, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and scriptwriter Paul Schrader. For a number of reasons, they were all unable to come, but Thelma’s greatest success was in arranging for Scorsese himself to film a short introduction to the film especially for the occasion.

It is perhaps not surprising that when news of the screening was announced, there were some voices of dissent. One of the principal reasons for the screening was the fact that the film had never really been viewed dispassionately when it was first released in 1988. This 25th anniversary screening was partly designed to allow a modern audience to see it as if for the first time. But for some people it was too much of a stretch for the film to be shown in a sacred Christian building. Letters were written to the Dean, as result of which, there was a story in The Times, which gave us some welcome publicity. This was followed by a short piece on BBC Points West which allowed different views to be expressed.

Staging a film in a building like Wells Cathedral is far more complex and time-consuming than you might imagine. Tony Jones came all the way from Cambridge with an assistant and two vehicles’ worth of equipment. 5 members of BFF spent the day there, setting up the screen, sorting out seating, and dealing with all the minutiae that can mean the difference between success and disaster.

An added feature of the event was a special question and answer session plus discussion, involving the Dean of Wells Cathedral, Thelma Schoonmaker and myself. As an unexpected bonus, John Beard (Production Designer for the film) and Andrew Sanders (Art Director) were able to join us. About 80 people attended this sold-out session, which was illuminated by Thelma’s enthusiasm, charm and eloquence. She is a true gem.

Although the tickets for the event had not sold as swiftly as for The Passion of Joan of Arc, the publicity surrounding the event boosted sales, and there were a significant number of people who arrived to buy tickets on the night. By the time everyone was seated, there were 300 people there and the Cathedral was nearly full. Since spoken dialogue in the Cathedral would have echoed back and forth for several seconds, the decision was made early on in the planning process to have headphones for the audience. The technical quality of the screening was flawless and the headphones worked seamlessly.

Scorsese spoke to us before the screening in the clip that Thelma arranged, and it was clear that not only the film, but the screening of it in Wells meant a lot to him. The Last Temptation of Christ is perhaps one of Scorsese’s more overlooked films, and this screening allowed it to be truly appreciated. Thelma has told me subsequently that she and Scorsese are very appreciative of this event, and thrilled that the film was shown in all its glory.

Everyone I have heard from since the screening has spoken of the impact the film has had on them. Not because it reinforced or rebuilt their Christian faith, but because the event itself was so remarkable, and because the subject matter of the film caused them to think again about the story which is so familiar to so many people, but which they never actually think about.

I’m thrilled by the fact that Bath Film Festival managed to stage two such remarkable events – The Passion of Joan of Arc in Bath Abbey and The Last Temptation of Christ in Wells Cathedral – within 2 months, and still put on the main festival in between. We have shown that we can create exceptional and unusual events that audiences want to attend, and which leave an indelible mark on those who do.  What next?