The Unholy Trinity of Heretical and Blasphemous Cinema.

10 April, 2009

I’ve started a yearly tradition today. Every Easter weekend from now until the day I die, I will watch three films that were condemned by the church as blasphemous, heretical, etc. While many congregations will offer screenings of Mel Gibson’s non-spiritual snuff film The Passion of the Christ, I will be worshipping at the alter of good films. My only criteria was that the religious powers-that-be openly hated the film, which unfortunately means that Pasolini’s Gospel According to St. Matthew is ineligible.

Good Friday: The Devils (1971, dir. Ken Russell): Kicking off the festivities is The Devils, Ken Russell’s reviled masterpiece about the insane levels of corruption present in the Catholic church then, now, and forever. It is an extreme work of art in every sense, from the explosive score by Peter Maxwell Davies to the breathtaking sets by Derek Jarman. It’s a film that creates a fully fleshed world, sucks you in and spits you right out at the end.

In Britain, the film was savaged by the press and censored by the government thanks to a deeply disturbing but totally necessary scene in which a cathedral of delirious nuns masturbate and sexually assault a gigantic statue of Jesus…all part of an exorcism by the psychotic powers-that-be, and most significant of all, intercut with the shockingly serene sequence of Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed in his finest performance) atoning for his sins with the utmost humility amidst the backdrop of London’s peaceful landscape.

Outrageous, yes. Gratuitous, absolutely not, especially if you keep a copy of the Old Testament in your house. To this day, The Devils manages to shake the core of the soul, and the fact that there isn’t a proper DVD available is shameful and disgraceful. Therefore, in addition to praising the film, I am posting the link to an online petition to Warner Bros. to get the picture released once and for all. This is a milestone in the art of cinema and it needs to be celebrated, not hidden away. Click here to sign.

Holy Saturday: Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979, dir. Terry Jones): I’ve only been to one Holy Saturday service in my life. The first half was unmistakably somber; in fact, it may have been almost entirely silent. Then halfway through the congregation started rejoicing when Jesus suddenly came back from the dead! It’s this sudden gear change into optimism that made me select Monty Python’s magnum opus as the second film of the unholy trinity.

It’s the one Python film in which the structure holds together, the main character is genuinely sympathetic, and the themes go beyond genre deconstruction. Fans of the comedy troupe will revel in some of the finest sketches and characters they ever produced, especially Reg, the often misguided revolutionary played by John Cleese in the kind of screaming performance he does better than anyone.

Upon its 1979 release, religious leaders foamed at the mouth over the alleged parody of Jesus himself as filtered through Brian (Graham Chapman), the ordinary bloke just trying to get by in Jerusalem in 33 AD. Of course, the fact that Brian attends Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount never occurred to them during their hysterical whining. Ultimately, Life of Brian holds up 30 years later because its targets are far more interesting. It isn’t even just the religious who are targeted, but anyone who lets others do their thinking for them. “You’re all individuals; you’re all different” says Brian in the single greatest sermon ever written in the English language. “Yes, we are all different,” replies the crowd. “I’m not,” mutters a lone voice.

Intelligent, hysterical, and all-around brilliant, Life of Brian is the greatest satire in film history rivaled only by Dr. Strangelove, and whether you’re religious or not, it’s impossible not to be won over by the film’s glorious final message: “Always look on the bright side of life.”

How do you top that?

Easter Sunday: The Last Temptation of Christ (1988, dir. Martin Scorsese): The problem with depicting Jesus in film is that he’s so bloody pious by virtue of the fact that he’s, well, Jesus, it’s difficult to relate to him as a main character. He’s either portrayed as a boring Superman or the most unfortunate torture victim who ever lived. But in adapting Nikos Kazantzakis’ book, Scorsese and Paul Schrader got around this problem by making him human. This Christ, wonderfully played by Willem Dafoe, goes through the struggle that anyone who has ever believed in a higher power can related to: The struggle of belief.

The chief offense was making him too human. Some Christians didn’t like the idea of a Christ who had even the smallest grain of doubt coarsing through his veins, and the last temptation itself — the desire to live a normal life — was the last straw. Ironically, it is the last temptation that allows for the greatest endorsement of Jesus I’ve ever encountered, for even with the opportunity to live and die like all the rest of us, he still goes back to die for our sins.

Don’t believe the lies. This is by far the most spiritually moving portrait of Jesus ever committed to film with Scorsese and Schrader in top form, an outstanding score by Peter Gabriel which at once makes you want to rock out and get down on your knees and praise the Lord, and as if all that weren’t great enough, look who’s playing Pontius Pilate:

The only thing that would make this better is if they somehow crowbarred Tom Waits into the cast. Which is ironic because it’s impossible to crowbar Tom Waits into anything, he’s that cool. Even his performance in the horrendous Domino is worth watching. But I digress. Last Temptation of Christ is Scorsese’s finest work next to his masterpiece, Raging Bull, and anyone of genuine faith needs to experience it. After all, it’s only a film.

Another film I was considering was The Baby of Mâcon, the last good film Greenaway ever made. If you have any suggestions for blasphemous and heretical films, let me know, I’d love to seek them out.

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3 Responses to “The Unholy Trinity of Heretical and Blasphemous Cinema.”

  1. Andrew said

    This is a great idea, I have always enjoyed watching films that have caused controversy or been banned, though I’m often left wondering what all the fuss was about. For next year try to track down a copy of a 1989 short film called Visions of Ecstasy, it’s currently the only film banned in the UK for its blasphemous content. You may also want to check out The Magdalene Sisters which offended the hell out of the pope and was banned from playing in Vatican City.

  2. I believe that “The Last Temptation of Christ” is Scorsese’s masterpiece.

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