Thirty years ago this month, the world saw the release of one of the most divisive movies ever made: Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. The film stands almost unrivaled in terms of ferocity of backlash and cultural import, and the controversy it inspired helped establish the ideological battle lines in which the culture wars are still being waged.
There was never any chance that Scorsese’s film wouldn’t provoke mass outrage. Films that look askance at Christianity, such as Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) and Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), generally find themselves in the crosshairs of religious reactionaries. The Last Temptation of Christ — which explores the messy duality of Jesus Christ, half human/half God, on his way to martyrdom, and which contains a long dream sequence wherein he abdicates his role as Messiah, marries, procreates, and lives regretfully into old age — came with a particularly large target on its back. Decades before it was optioned for film, the Greek Orthodox Church tried to have the original 1955 novel banned in author Nikos Kazantzakis’s home country. Because of the book’s reputation, opponents of the film were able to incite a worldwide firestorm in hopes of squashing any potential adaptation.
They were successful in their initial efforts. Scorsese’s first attempt to make the film in 1983 at Paramount Studios was canceled just as production was set to begin, thanks in part to the angry letters the studio received from offended citizens and organizations. When Universal Studios picked up the project three years later and saw it through to completion, those same factions decided to swamp the film in as much controversy as they could, in the hopes of burying it.
There were huge demonstrations at screenings across the country, as well as at MCA headquarters (Universal’s then-parent company). One well-known evangelist made a serious offer to buy the film’s negative from Universal so that he could burn it. Several theater chains refused to show the film, and many video stores (including Blockbuster) later refused to carry it. It was heavily censored, or banned outright, in a number of countries, including the Philippines and Singapore, where it remains unavailable.
And then came the literal firestorm. During a showing of the film on Oct. 22, 1988, a group of Catholic integrists (die-hard conservatives who oppose the church’s modernization) set off a bomb at the Saint Michel cinema in Paris, seriously injuring 13 people.
On the one hand, it seems fitting that if any film must be subject to such harsh intimidation, it should be one of as immense artistic quality as The Last Temptation of Christ. Mystical, hypnotic, and heartbreaking, its reputation has only grown in the intervening decades, so much so that it is now regularly cited as one of Scorsese’s best (even if it has failed to retain the same cultural cachet as his more widely seen and referenced films). On the other hand, there is perhaps no film more undeserving of its reputation by those who chose to denigrate it. Far from being a work of sacrilege, Scorsese’s film is a sincere examination into the mystery of Christ, made by a true believer. If ever there was movie that might convert cynically secular arthouse patrons, this would be it.
Of course, its opponents couldn’t care less about the transformative power of film. They were only interested in creating controversy, and they focused on the surface details of its plot to stir up public opposition. The same tactics would be deployed in later years, to far less success, against “sacrilegious” films such as Kevin Smith’s Dogma (1999) and Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (2014). But ironically, the most controversial religious films in recent years haven’t come from supposedly secular Hollywood but were made by — and appeal to — religious conservatives.
The most obvious example is Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004). Gibson’s film is a through-a-glass-darkly reflection of Last Temptation in terms of scope, complexity, and historical verisimilitude, but the core difference between them speaks to something much more culturally relevant. Whereas Scorsese ended up alienating Christian audiences by delivering the type of serious work that their representatives are always demanding from Hollywood, huckster Gibson lured them in by offering a grisly exploitation film — the crucifixion of Christ by way of Cannibal Holocaust.
At least Gibson’s sense of exploitation came from an honest place, as evidenced by his record of outspoken religious belief and the obsession with physical violence found throughout his work. So, too, did the major controversy that overtook that film: charges of anti-Semitism in its depiction of Jewish characters. Such accusations proved to be well-founded once Gibson had his ugly public fall from grace a few years later. Bigotry, like faith, can be sincere. But both can also be manufactured.
The rise of Christian-produced films over the last decade, and in particular since the election of Donald Trump, has been well documented. Unlike Passion, most of these have been exploitation films of a different sort. Films such as Fireproof (2008), the God’s Not Dead series (2014, 2016, 2018), and Let There Be Light (2017) have all delivered red-meat polemics to their evangelical audiences while courting enough liberal backlash to garner mainstream media attention.
For as damaging as the outrage directed at The Last Temptation of Christ was to its bottom line, Christian films have sought to emulate its example in order to play the victim. Even if such efforts don’t always pay off (Let There Be Light producer and co-star Sean Hannity was the focus of much ridicule last year in the wake of his film’s dismal theatrical run), it’s hard to fault the overall gambit. Cynically courting outrage on behalf of the American ruling demographic while simultaneously claiming persecution has proven a winning strategy in elections, so there’s no reason to think it wouldn’t work at the box office. It’s only too bad for Scorsese that he hadn’t thought to get the jump on his opponents by marketing his film in such a manner. Of course, to do so would have required him to cast aside any moral scruples or self-respect, but still…
(Coincidentally, the most hilarious example of outrage marketing to be found this year belonged to Gotti, a movie that desperately sought to emulate Scorsese’s gangster classics, and which tried to make up for its initial floundering by playing to the persecution complex of the same conservative audience that would have surely protested Last Temptation.)
For all the outrage swirling around our various forms of media, it is hard to picture something like the The Last Temptation of Christ causing the same level of sustained commotion today, at least among Christian audiences. Obviously, the examples of mass demonstrations and violent assaults on artists that challenge — or simply depict — Islam in their work are plentiful, and should not be dismissed. But that is a whole other can of locusts.
(Also — and not to let religious zealots of the Muslim variety off the hook — it is interesting that whenever right-wing critics of Islam point to these attacks, they always fail to mention the Christian terrorists who bombed the Saint Michel cinema.)
Partly, the inability to imagine a repeat of The Last Temptation of Christ’s cultural moment is due to the way social media has splintered outrage into a thousand different shards. Partly, it’s due to the overwhelming amount of media currently available. Even 10 years ago, something like AMC’s absurdly blasphemous adaptation of the comic series Preacher would have likely drawn howls of outrage from offended Christians; today, it’s just another niche show in a sea of content. Truly challenging films about faith — such as this year’s outstanding First Reformed, from Last Temptation screenwriter Paul Schrader — fail to gain widespread notice from either religious or secular audiences, while new examples of Christian agitprop are forced to dig ever deeper into the muck of identity politics in their attempts to generate controversy.
In this light, The Last Temptation of Christ — crucified upon release, since resurrected, and now recognized as the masterpiece of sincerity that it’s always been — feels even more transcendent.