Since its release on the streaming service earlier this month, “The First Temptation of Christ” has spawned multiple online campaigns that call on Brazilian authorities to ban the special and criminally charge its creators with “vilification of faith.” As of early Tuesday, one petition had been signed by nearly 2 million people.
The Netflix film tells the story of Jesus returning home from the desert for his 30th birthday, in a highly satirical format. Mary and God are portrayed as illicit lovers, Joseph is a bumbling carpenter who can’t build a table, and the Three Kings try to pass off ham as “free-range soy.”
And Jesus, the movie suggests, seems to have done more than wander around the desert for 40 days. Arriving in Nazareth, he brings along a flamboyant male companion, Orlando, who implies at nearly every turn that he and the son of God are romantically involved, at one point calling him a “naughty Capricorn.”
As Orlando, the walking stereotype of an effeminate gay man, begins to describe how the pair met — “I was bathing in an oasis, and I was naked” — Jesus abruptly cuts him off to prevent more from being revealed.
“And then I asked for directions,” Jesus says. “I asked, and he gave it to me.”
“You bet I did,” Orlando responds, nail file in hand. “I sure gave it to him."
It’s tongue-in-cheek moments like this one that have scandalized the deeply religious South American country, which counts among its population over 120 million Catholics, more than anywhere else in the world.
Among the prominent critics of the comedy special are Eduardo Bolsonaro, the youngest son of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right figure who has declared himself a “proud homophobe” and said he would prefer a “dead son to a gay son.”
“We support freedom of expression, but is it worth attacking the faith of 86% of the population?” Eduardo Bolsonaro recently wrote on Twitter, calling the film “garbage” and adding that it “refuses to preach the word of God.”
Marco Feliciano, a conservative evangelical pastor who heads the Brazilian legislature’s commission on minorities and human rights, took to Twitter to call for the country to “unite” against the special and the YouTube comedy channel that created it.
That sketch-comedy group, Porta dos Fundos (translation: “back door”), has made a name for its irreverent skits. Last year, it won an International Emmy for its most recent holiday special, which follows Jesus’ apostles after a night of heavy drinking in “The Last Hangover.”
“Christians and non-Christians have asked me to take action against the irresponsible members of Porta dos Fundos,” Feliciano wrote on Twitter. “It’s time we took a collective action — churches and all good people — to put an end to this."
The relationship between Orlando and Jesus — only ever implied, if in a heavy-handed way — marks only one transgression depicted in “The First Temptation.” At other points in the 46-minute special, Mary smokes a joint, Melchior hires a sex worker, and Jesus gets high off “special tea,” hallucinating himself into a meeting with Buddha, Krishna, the Rastafari god Jah and an alien deity for Scientologists.
But Fábio Porchat, the actor who plays Orlando, said that Brazilians have seemingly been riled up only about his character’s implied sexuality. The film doesn’t incite violence, he said, and doesn’t say that people shouldn’t believe in God.
“For some Catholics here in Brazil, it’s O.K. if Jesus is a bad guy, uses drugs: That’s no problem,” Porchat said in a Monday interview with Variety. “The problem is he’s gay."
Porta dos Fundos has taken the criticism in stride. On Twitter, the group humorously posted the link to a less-shared petition, also calling for the film to be taken down.
“As the petition against us picks up steam, we celebrate the success of yet another one of God’s creations: our Christmas special,” the group wrote, adding that “‘The First Temptation of Christ’ remains ever more powerful.”
They even added a meme showing God, as he is depicted in the film, concocting a Christmas special from some special ingredients, including a drop of Netflix and a “bit of heresy.”
Meanwhile, the Gospel Coalition, an international collective of evangelical pastors, has begun a campaign in Brazil calling for a boycott of Netflix.
“To remain a sponsor of film productions that mock and vilify the Lord is the same as slapping him, spitting on him, beating his head to bury his crown in thorns,” wrote the Rev. Joel Theodoro, a pastor at the Bairro Imperial Presbyterian Church in Rio de Janeiro.
In response, Antonio Tabet, who plays God in the film, took the opportunity to criticize the religious leaders who had rallied around his group’s film.
“It’s predictable that vain, opportunistic men who think they speak in the name of God, even without proxy, will want to mobilize the less enlightened around boycott or censorship campaigns,” he told the Folha de São Paulo newspaper. “There’s always the option of not watching it, for those who dislike this content.”
And, he added, campaigns like the church’s may backfire, because they generate added publicity for free speech advocates in Brazil.
Perhaps the most shameless response, however, came from Gregório Duvivier, who plays Jesus in the film but wrote a satirical newspaper column as the word of God.
“Getting offended — leave that to me, fellas,” he wrote. “When I don’t like someone, I leave. I’m a grown up.”
Duvivier-as-God adds that his biggest complaint with the film was that Tabet is about 19 inches too short, and 20 pounds too heavy, and thus “practically a Hobbit version of me.”
Missing from any criticism toward the special, however, were the voices of Brazil’s LGBT community — an omission that Porta dos Fundos was quick to point out.
Toward the end of the film, Orlando — spoiler alert — reveals himself as Lucifer in disguise, having seduced Jesus in disguise as a means to take over the world.
“If anybody should be angry with us, it should be the gay community because a gay character turns out to be the Devil,” Porchat said. “But the gay community loves us!”