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The Last Temptation of Christ, Martin Scorcese, 1988, film, after the novel of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis.

Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ
1988

When Nikos Kazantzakis publishes The Last Temptation of Christ in 1955, the Catholic Church bans it and the Greek Orthodox Church excommunicates him. Three decades later, acclaimed director Martin Scorsese releases his screen adaptation of the novel. The film, according to its prologue, "is not based on the Gospels, but upon this fictional exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict." Scorsese, known for such masterpieces as Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, portrays Jesus as a confused man who struggles against his dual nature, in thoughts more than action.

Before The Last Temptation of Christ is completed, Christian groups worldwide condemn it as blasphemous, although Christian theology teaches that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine, and that to say otherwise is heresy. Preproduction begins at Universal Studios in 1983, and until the film's release in 1988, groups affiliated with the Christian right demonstrate against The Last Temptation of Christ through petitions, phone campaigns, radio broadcasts, and street protests.

Aware of mounting organized pressure against the film, in 1987, Universal hires a liaison with the Christian community, a born-again Christian himself, and arranges a private advance screening for agitated groups, including Reverend Donald Wildmon's American Family Association and Bill Bright's Campus Crusade for Christ. The audience is especially disgusted by a closing image: Christ on the cross is tempted by Satan with visions of a "normal" life with the prostitute Mary Magdalene, replete with sex, marriage, and children. Some 1,200 Christian radio stations in California denounce the film, and Mastermedia International urges a boycott against parent company MCA. Bill Bright offers to reimburse Universal for its investment in The Last Temptation of Christ in exchange for all existing prints, which he vows to destroy. Universal responds 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 the letter appears, more than 600 protesters, sponsored by a Christian radio station in Los Angeles, picket MCA headquarters.

The protests are effective. Edwards Theaters, with 150 theaters nationwide, refuses to screen the film, as do United Artists and General Cinemas, with 3,500 theaters between them. In August 1988, Universal opens The Last Temptation of Christ in nine major cities in the United States and Canada. The day before its premiere, Citizens for a Universal Appeal, a coalition of religious groups from Orange County, CA, stages a protest in front of Universal's L.A. headquarters that attracts some 25,000 participants. By the time The Last Temptation of Christ goes into wide release in September, the national controversy has waned, but now individual cities and towns seek bans. Among them, Savannah, GA, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, and Santa Ana, CA, succeed.

In 1989, Blockbuster Video declines to carry the film in its stores. The policy remains, though it is available for purchase on the chain's Web site. In the mid-90s, The Last Temptation of Christ reignites protests in Canada and Russia when it airs on national television. Although critics give the movie mixed reviews on aesthetic grounds, the film earns Martin Scorsese an Academy Award nomination for Best Director. And in 1997, the American Film Institute bestows upon him the Life Achievement Award, considered the highest career honor in Hollywood.

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