Controversy Corner: The Last Temptation Of Christ

March 26, 2016
We take a look back at the controversy whipped up by Martin Scorsese’s sadly misunderstood mini-epic, The Last Temptation Of Christ.

With the likes of The Wolf Of Wall Street and the pilot for the TV series, Vinyl, Martin Scorsese has proved that you don’t need to be young to work up a firestorm of on-screen energy. Justifiably revered, the prolific director was, is, and always will be one of modern cinema’s most daring and often controversial practitioners. Though many of his movies have caused upset in various quarters, the filmmaker inspired a cultural explosion of the first order with his 1988 film, The Last Temptation Of Christ. Based on the equally divisive novel by Nikos Kazantzakis (the film, according to its prologue, “is not based on the Gospels, but upon this fictional exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict”), Scorsese’s gritty, immediate film depicts the life of Jesus Christ (brilliantly played by Willem Dafoe, who later sighed, many years later, “To this day, I can’t believe that I was so brazen to think that I could pull off the Jesus role”) as never before.

In scenes that scandalised religious groups around the world, the final sequences of the film show Jesus being tempted by Satan, who offers him visions of his alternative, earthly life should he choose to get down from the cross and thus not die for everybody’s sins. And even just the concept of this alternative life was enough to upset a lot of Christians. For the devout and conservative, the image of JC shacked up with Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey) with a brood of children was way too much, and they came out in droves to let their feelings be known.

On October 22, 1988, a French Christian fundamentalist group launched Molotov cocktails inside a Parisian cinema showing the film. Thirteen people were seriously injured, and the unofficial Holy War against the film had begun. In some countries, including Turkey, Mexico, Chile, Singapore and Argentina, The Last Temptation Of Christ was banned or censored for several years. Screens were slashed, and prints were stolen. The US evangelist, Bill Bright, even offered to reimburse the cost of the film if backing studio, Universal, would hand it over for destruction. Universal responded with an open letter in newspapers across the country, saying that acquiescence to these forces would infringe on the First Amendment rights of all Americans. On the day that the letter appeared, more than 600 protesters, sponsored by a Christian radio station in Los Angeles, picketed the company’s headquarters.

In Australia, security guards checked the bags of all patrons seeing the film in fear of potential bombings, while conservative commentators were given seemingly inexhaustible air time to lambast the film. In short, The Last Temptation Of Christ had unintentionally become a divine instrument of moral and religious panic. The film had a major impact on the world of cinema, particularly upon those who starred in it. “It had a profound influence on me,” Willem Dafoe said. “Marty [Scorsese] had made this movie in his head for years, and I felt privileged to be involved.” As with so much of his cinema, however, Martin Scorsese merely sought to create something that would have an impact. “I wanted the Jesus in my film to be more accessible, more immediate, and to engage the audience,” the director said, obviously underestimating the level to which the short sighted religious right likes to be engaged…

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