"I've always wanted to do films of the spirit, spiritual films, but religion gets in the way."
There are (at least) two competing stories that get told about The Last Temptation of Christ's tortured path to the screen twenty-five years ago. The first one, all but taken for granted in Hollywood, is that Martin Scorsese is a sincere seeker who was temporarily thwarted by institutional religious bigotry. But he doggedly persisted against all odds to make a great work of art.
The second story is taken as the obvious but suppressed truth by those who tell it. They maintain that a secular entertainment community deliberately provoked a controversy to help rally support for a troubled, inferior film.
Whichever version you accept (or remember), The Last Temptation marked a tipping point in the American "culture wars." There had been other films, and have been since, that generated protest, disdain, or both. Michael Haneke's Amour, for instance, recently drew fire for (its detractors argue) promoting the culture of death. But it also garnered praise outside of religious circles, not to mention a Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
Last Temptation wasn't simply criticized: it helped establish the battle lines. It is the prime example in the book by Michael Medved that gave this particular battlefield a name: Hollywood vs. America.
And at least once, the battle was not just metaphorical. An attack at a theater showing the film in Paris left at least one viewer burned and several others injured. The venue had to close for three years to be remodeled.
It's fascinating to listen to the commentary track on the film's Criterion Collection DVD, released in 2000. Made with a $7 million budget for Universal Studios after Paramount gave up the picture, the film begins with a written disclaimer that it is not based on the Gospels but is a "fictional exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict" which, it says, is the clash of "spirit" and "flesh" that grows out of the "yearning of man to attain God."
On the DVD commentary, screenwriter Paul Schrader—one of Calvin College's more controversial graduates—admits that this use of Jesus as a metaphor is "technically" blasphemous. But he claims that the critics of the film never made a sophisticated critique. Instead, they were enraged by just one thing: that the movie showed sexual contact between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. This is the greatest of the temptations that Jesus overcomes by choosing to remain on the cross and be crucified.
On the commentary track, the film's creators don't agree about just what sort of response they expected. Scorsese claims that he did not think it would be such a big controversy. But Schrader and Jay Cocks (who helped revise the script) say they anticipated the responses. They state alternately that they knew it would "upset people" (but that disagreement is good and healthy) and that it would be "willfully misunderstood by some" and "might" scandalize others.
Whatever Scorsese's expectations during filming—it's worth remembering that at least one studio backed away from even making the film—he reportedly did not attend its premiere. That event, replete with security concerns so new and alien at the time but so depressingly normal today, is another reminder of the ways America has changed in the last quarter century.