Film director Martin Scorsese, who came under attack in the United States and abroad for his depiction of a vulnerable and sometimes confused Jesus in the film "The Last Temptation of Christ," said Monday that his Academy Award nomination for best director serves as a signal of support for other artists' controversial works.
"It supports their right to make certain kinds of films and supports the American system," said Scorsese, who was in Los Angeles Monday to receive the Courage in Filmmaking Award from the Los Angeles Film Teachers Assn. It is the first time the group has extended the honor.
The parallels between the violent reaction to "The Last Temptation of Christ" and the outcry among Muslims to Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" were obvious to Scorsese.
"I think it's a fair comparison," he said. "The reaction to 'The Satanic Verses' is frightening."
Film rights to Rushdie's novel are available, but no one seems to be jumping at the chance to adapt the controversial book to the screen. Would a film maker take heart from the support Scorsese has received from the artistic community?
"It has to be made by someone who believes in it," Scorsese said. "Someone can't make it to make a quick buck."
Scorsese had been committed to making "The Last Temptation of Christ" for more than 10 years. He and screenwriter Paul Schrader began working on an adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis' novel in 1976 and it had come close many times to being produced, only to be shelved, before Universal stepped up to take the heat.
Since the film opened last August, it has been denounced as blasphemous by fundamentalist Christians and has been banned in India, Israel, South Africa and Athens. Its opening in France incited violent protests.
Scorsese said he did not set out to provoke controversy, but he is heartened by the fact that "The Last Temptation of Christ" "opened up a dialogue" both in American churches and in homes.
"It's become a very strong tool in discussion, in making the concept of Jesus and the religion alive and vibrant for today," he said. "That's really what I set out to do."
A lapsed Roman Catholic who was educated in Catholic schools, Scorsese said he understands the concerns of protesters, though he believes the film is not blasphemous .
"We're dealing with people who, I think, mean well, to a certain extent, but their interpretation of the Gospel adheres to the word of the Gospel, and (my interpretation) is different," Scorsese said. "I really do understand how they feel about it, but what surprises me is their intolerance to my belief."
He said he was surprised by his Oscar nomination because he feared the protests that surrounded the film might have put people off.
"The film has not really been seen as a movie because of the other issues that are in the way," Scorsese said. "Rather than a movie it became a news event."
Scorsese said he is particularly happy to receive an award from a teachers group.
"The primary job of a teacher in America is to open the minds of the students, make them think," he said. "Maybe that has something to do with this award."