5. Dogma (1999)
Kevin Smith’s warped, hilarious and irreverent comedy about fallen angels, hell, the end of the word and Catholics trying to be “cool” is really best seen as all in good fun. Smith himself even appears intent on explaining this in the exaggerated opening slides’ haphazard, snide apologies.
With all this in mind, it is hard to watch the film and imagine the backlash it received in 1999. The Catholic League declared it blasphemy, massive protests were organized and Kevin Smith received death threats.
With this historical background information, watching the film itself can feel a little off putting. While the film is clearly nihilistic, obnoxious and crass, it seems more like baby’s first steps into skepticism then a full on attack of faith and decency. It’s the kind of film that you could easily use as a way to laugh at yourself if you were confident in your beliefs.
Either way, the film has gone on to become one of Kevin Smith’s most beloved films and a modern day cult classic. It also holds up surprising well from a film making stand point, with intriguing performances from Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, as well as appearances from the usual View Askew pack, all of which makes the film do something Smith himself was likely not prepared for: stand the test of time.
4. The Passion of the Christ (2004)
A brutal depiction of the last 12 hours of Jesus Christ’s life that spans over two hours, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is a dark, violent, agonizing journey into the Christian faith. In contrast to many of the other films on this list, the film is not a critique of religion or a satanic horror film, rather, it is a passionate plea for acceptance of Christ’s divinity.
Evangelical Christians almost instantly lauded the film as a masterwork and heavily promoted the film as a powerful document of Christian values, a surreal move from groups that often picketed horror films for far less graphic depictions of violence.
At the same rime, Roger Ebert declared it to be the most violent movie he had ever seen, and still others debated that the film should have been rated NC-17 and got a pass due to its subject matter. Still others critiqued the Anti-Semitic overtones and the blatant white washing of the film.
At the time of the film’s release there was no Hostel, and Saw would not be released for another eight months. Though Mel Gibson almost certainly never intended it to be viewed though this lenses, The Passion can be seen as a strange precursor to the wave of splatter films that would overtake cinema in the next decade.
The film still stands as an enthralling, if not stomach-churning, work. Critical reception remains mixed, but Mel Gibson’s drive and commitment are felt all over the film. It’s impressive to note that the film’s dialogue is all in Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew, and the production design is strikingly beautiful. A visionary film that at times is as horrifying as it is breathtaking, it is one of the more bizarre cinematic achievements of the new century.
3. Life of Brian (1979)
Monty Python’s The Life of Brian was met with a whirlwind of controversy both in Britain and the United Sates, and it’s instantly easy to understand why.
Essentially taking the philosophical stance that a ‘messiah’ was born everyday without consequence or divinity, the film tells the story of Brian, who is born in the stable next door to the one Jesus Christ was born in. A series of misadventures leads Brian to starting a movement much like Christ’s, despite insistence from Brian himself that the movement is a sham.
Still seen as a brutal and witty comedy classic, the film was viewed as potentially controversial from the moment of its inception, with may town councils in Britain declaring that no theatres within their jurisdiction could play the film. The Monty Python troupe took to the media, debating on BBC the goals of the film as well as religion and theism in general.
What is truly fascinating about Life of Brian is both the parts of the film that feel timeless as well as the parts of the film that feel drastically dated in British politics of the time. Even though some moments are clearly rooted in past topical humor, the controversy surrounding the film continues, as does the status of the film itself, both as a historical document and a piece of living, relevant art.
2. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
It’s impossible to talk about Martin Scorsese’s bizarre 1988 epic without dwelling on the controversy it caused. Based on a similarly debated book of the same name published in 1955, The Last Temptation of Christ is concerned with one shocking goal: to depict Jesus Christ as a real flawed, struggling man.
The film is a fascinating look at faith and theology, and, without giving anything away, proposes a narrative that Christ was a deeply religious man who still sinned, struggled with doubt, lust, and pain, and ultimately is tempted with a normal life one last time while suffering on the cross, and ultimately giving in.
The film was met with massive protests from conservative Christian groups all across the US, with one preacher even attempting to buy the film negative to destroy it. All of this is shadowed by an attack on the Saint Michel’s Theatre in Paris, conducted by a right wing fundamentalist Catholic group. The attack resulted in 13 injured, four of which were badly harmed, and put the theatre out of business for three years.
Despite all of this, the films true view of religion is hard to pin down: the novel of the same name, though controversial is a religious book, about overcoming doubt. Though Scorsese’s vision is less direct, it still is hard to view the film as an attack on organized religion, and instead an investigation of Christian theology. Now the film is remembered as a fascinating part of Scorsese’s career, as well as a challenging work in general.
1. The Devils (1971)
Few films in the history of the medium have ever attracted such legendary controversy as Ken Russell’s The Devils. Such was the legendary scandal and horror brought about by the film that it has never been released in its uncut form, and is perhaps safe to assume that Russell’s original vision is in fact become a lost film. However, this is not to say that the versions we do have (the most complete running at about 117 minutes) are not still shocking, blasphemes and fascinating.
Essentially a loose telling of Urbain Grandier, a priest convicted for witchcraft, the film itself is far more philosophically and politically complex than any one theme or motif. Some of the most notorious moments include explicit scenes of an orgy of nuns and the violent sexual fantasies of Sister Jeanne.
After its release the film was received scathing reviews (despite now being seen as a cult classic and a challenging work), and was severely edited as well as being banned outright in many countries.
What is perhaps most fascinating about the film is how it praises traditional catholic beliefs while also damning the political influence and corruption of the church. Regardless of one’s religious or philosophical background, The Devils is a shocking and epic work.
One part costume drama, one part psychedelic trip, and one part moral fable, The Devils is a landmark film in British history as well one of the finest (and most tragic) examples of censorship truly robbing us of an artist’s vision.
Author Bio: Israel Lawton is a writer and theorist currently working out of salt lake city. They proudly work for the non profit Salt Lake Film Society, as well as the co founder of the avant garde art collective Cashiers of Cinema.