The backlash to “The First Temptation of Christ” had proved so intense that on Wednesday, a Brazilian judge ordered Netflix to remove the film from its streaming service.
“The consequences of the dissemination and exhibition of ‘artistic production’ ... are more likely to cause more serious and irreparable damage than its suspension,” wrote Benedicto Abicair, a judge in Rio de Janeiro state, according to the Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo.
His ruling was prompted by a legal complaint from a conservative Catholic institute in Rio, which claimed that the film “attacked the protection of religious freedom” by portraying Joseph as an idiot, Mary as a cheater and Jesus as a “childish homosexual."
Netflix did not immediately respond to questions from The Washington Post, though a representative for the company told Brazilian media it had no comment on the ruling.
It’s hardly the first time Netflix has faced such an obstacle overseas. As the streaming giant expands to markets worldwide, it has been the frequent target of regulation or censorship, sometimes cutting out scenes or entire episodes to avoid violating government orders or more conservative social norms.
A 2018 episode of “Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj,” in which the comedian analyzes the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia, was pulled from viewers in the Middle Eastern country following a request from authorities there. In India, Netflix voluntarily agreed not to stream content that “deliberately and maliciously” insults the national flag or upsets religions, and in Thailand, it sparked controversy with its advertisements for the racy British comedy “Sex Education.”
But Wednesday’s court order may mark one of the most forceful crackdowns on the streaming platform in Latin America, where it has produced dozens of original projects and faced few, if any, serious efforts to restrict what viewers can or cannot watch — let alone, a movie made in and for the region.
Netflix refused calls from critics to take down the 2017 Argentine movie “Desire,” which shows a young girl accidentally experiencing an orgasm — a scene some lambasted as “child pornography.” Although the streaming giant caused an uproar among Brazilian leftists with “The Mechanism,” a fictionalized version of the country’s recent political scandals, the series never went offline.
To be sure, “The First Temptation of Christ,” was meant to push boundaries, like other Porta dos Fundos productions. Between scenes of Mary smoking marijuana or Melchior hiring a sex worker, Jesus brings home a flamboyant male companion named Orlando, who repeatedly implies the two men are sleeping together. (At one point, Orlando calls the son of God a “naughty Capricorn.”)
The criticism was swift — from evangelical leaders, delegates in the national assembly, bishops in Texas and even the son of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, whose father once called himself a “proud” homophobe. But Netflix stayed quiet.
“They [Netflix] haven’t said anything to us like, ‘Maybe we should stop making the special available,’ ” Fábio Porchat, who plays Orlando, told Variety last month. “They support freedom of speech.” The same was true of Viacom, which has had a majority stake in the comedy group since 2017, he said.
The debate over the film seemed to stay within the bounds of the Brazilian press and social media until Christmas Eve, when Porta dos Fundos’s offices in Rio were hit with gasoline bombs late at night. No one was hurt.
In a video of the attack that circulated on social media days later, three men took responsibility on behalf of Brazil’s “integralists,” a 1930s-era ultranationalist movement inspired by Italian fascism. With a digitally altered voice, the video’s narrator said the group wanted to defend “all Brazilians against the blasphemous, bourgeois and anti-patriotic attitude” of the filmmakers, denouncing them as “militant Marxists.”
The group condemned the violence on Twitter, writing that “love will prevail along with freedom of expression.”
On Dec. 31, Brazilian police carried out a search warrant against a 41-year-old businessman, Eduardo Fauzi Richard Cerquise, who by then had already fled to Russia, where he intends to seek asylum.
“We would like to reinforce our commitment to good comedy,” the group said, “and declare that we are stronger, more united, inspired and confident that Brazil will survive this storm of hatred.”
Yet for others, it was still the group’s film that they saw as hateful.
In its legal complaint against “The First Temptation,” the Don Bosco Center for Culture and Faith said that “the level of disrespect, aggression and contempt for faith and the values of Catholics displayed in the film is unspeakable,” according to BBC Brazil.
Abicair, the judge, wrote that the case was a “clear conflict” between two constitutional principles: the right to artistic expression and free speech, and freedom of religion and the protection of church and liturgy.
One of those seemed to win out. He argued that it’s “more appropriate and beneficial, not only for the Christian community, but for the mostly Christian Brazilian society, until the merit of the offense is judged."
It’s unclear what will happen next. Although Porta dos Fundos said on Wednesday it had not yet received the order, Netflix has complied with other government requests to take down movies.
In Singapore, for instance, the streaming service said it pulled three series that contained “positive portrayals of drug use” following a request from authorities there.
The order, which overturned a previous ruling, stands unless Netflix or the comedy group appeals and a higher court strikes it down.
Marco Aurélio Mello, a Brazilian Supreme federal court justice, said that’s precisely what should happen with “The First Temptation.” In an interview with the Brazilian newspaper O Globo, he said Abicair’s decision was “an outrage” and not supported by the country’s Constitution.