Blasphemy on film

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With a second Dan Brown adaptation – ‘Angels

This week’s new film ‘Angels & Demons’ may have outraged the Catholic Church before it was even made (the Vatican refused permission to film in its churches), but Ron Howard’s film of Dan Brown’s novel isn’t the first to spark religious controversy. Nor are Catholic clergy the only ones to take umbrage at filmmakers’ efforts: over the past century, cinema has succeeded in offending every religious group going, from Buddhists (‘Seven Years in Tibet’) to Wiccans (the Harry Potter series).

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‘La Ricotta’ (1963)

Pasolini’s contribution to the 1963 ‘RoGoPaG’ portmanteau film remains one of the most controversial occasions of cinematic blasphemy. Orson Welles plays a director making a lavish film of Christ’s Passion in a grimy Italian slum. He coaxes the locals to act in the film with the promise of food. Then, with the Crucifixion fast approaching, the peasant playing Jesus dies of indigestion from gorging on cheese. Pasolini was arrested and convicted for holding state religion in contempt – but his four-month prison sentence was eventually suspended.
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‘Monty Python’s Life of Brian’ (1979)

The ‘Life of Brian’ controversy remains the Gold Standard of religious outrage: UK councils, US states and entire countries banned it (even those without cinemas). Believers picketed the film, evangelicals burned it and the Bishop of Southwark denounced it on the BBC. In 1988, Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ sparked similar resentment. The directors of both films argued they were well researched and respectful of Christian beliefs, even if they displayed a distrust for the pomp and ritual of religious doctrine.
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Disney’s ‘Aladdin’ (1992)

‘Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face / It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home!’ Long before the Mohammed cartoon controversy, Howard Ashman’s lyrics to the opening theme of Disney’s ‘Aladdin’ caused a storm of protest in the Muslim world. The furore was intensified by the fact that all the film’s heroes have soft, ‘Westernised’ features, while all the villains have darker skin and seem more overtly ‘Arabic’.
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‘Paradise Now’ (2005)

Mel Gibson’s biblical splatter yarn ‘The Passion of the Christ’ from 2004 sparked a fury of debate in the media as to whether the film should be labelled anti-Semitic due to its depiction of the Judeans as rabble-rousing hatemongers. Less than a year later, Hany Abu-Assad’s ‘Paradise Now’ was released, a shocking and absurdist look at a pair of Palestinian men preparing a suicide attack on Israel. While the film won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar, Israeli critics were not so forthcoming in their praise, with one internet newswire describing it as a ‘Nazi film’ in which Jews are referred to as ‘them’.
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‘The Love Guru’ (2008)

The execrable ‘Love Guru’, starring Mike Myers, had not one but two Hindu groups picketing the film before its release. Both the Hindu Society of America and Shri Ramayan Pracharini Sabha resented Myers’s portrayal of a Hindu self-help guru as buffoonish, extravagant and sexually rampant. Still, Indian director Deepa Mehta remains the queen of ruffling the feathers of the Hindu community: the far-right political party Shiv Sena stormed a cinema that was showing her 1996 film ‘Fire’ (resenting its lesbian content), while Hindu fundamentalist groups destroyed the set of her film ‘Water’ when she first tried to make it in India in 2000 (she filmed in Sri Lanka in 2004).

Author: David Jenkins, Tom Huddleston


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