"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 ...1