Chile at Odds Over 'Last Temptation of Christ'

SANTIAGO, Chile (Reuters) - Fourteen years after it was released in a flurry of controversy, Martin Scorsese's film "Last Temptation of Christ" is still making waves in Chile, the most socially conservative nation in Latin America.

Chilean lawyers said on Wednesday they had asked the Interamerican Court of Human Rights to pressure the government in Santiago to speed up efforts to lift a ban on the movie.

The film, in which a weak-willed Jesus marries Mary Magdalene in a fantasy scene, has long offended Christians but it has ceased to be a burning issue in many countries.

In Chile, "Last Temptation" is part of a wider struggle over morals between the conservative-dominated Catholic Church and liberal politicians.

"The film has been transformed into an emblem for the fight for freedom of expression, particularly artistic freedom to create and the freedom of citizens to have access to all types of information and artistic creation," said Alex Munoz, one of the lawyers.

He said he had sent documents to the Interamerican Court in Costa Rica this week asking it to investigate Chile for failing to abide by a ruling it made last year that ordered the Chilean government to lift a 1997 High Court ban on the film.

"(Chile's) parliament last year passed a law which scraps the ban but that law has still not come into force so the film is still prohibited," Munoz told Reuters.

The ban is a vestige of widespread film censorship during the 1973-1990 rightist dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.


The Catholic Church is fighting plans by the center-left government to liberalize family law in Chile, the only Western democracy with the exception of tiny Malta, where divorce is still illegal. The Church and government have also been at odds over the introduction of the "morning after" contraceptive pill.

Representatives of the Chilean Church were not available for comment on "Last Temptation" despite numerous telephone requests. Leading Church figures have criticized the film in the past as blasphemous.

Despite its conservative social mores, Chile is regarded as the most open economy in Latin America. It carried out a wave of privatizations in the 1990s and bureaucracy is minimal. "There is a large contradiction in Chilean society. It can be very liberal in some aspects but it continues to be very conservative in others," said lawyer Munoz.

Around 10,000 Christians protested outside Universal Studios in Los Angeles when "Last Temptation" first opened.

Until last year, the 1988 movie held the record for the number of complaints to Britain's television watchdog after it was shown on the Channel Four network.

Unlike Scorsese's 1976 tour de force "Taxi Driver", "Last Temptation" received little critical acclaim at the time. It was panned for unrealistic characters and a weak plot.

U.S. public service television program Sneak Previews said in a review: "It's the height of irony that this level of controversy could be generated by a movie this awful."