Sex, violence, and religion. What do these things have in common—and no, we aren’t using this hot button triptych as the basis for some punchline. In fact, it’s safe to say that anytime one of these concepts is used in a motion picture—subtlety or shockingly—eyebrows will be raised. Now imagine going overboard in the depiction of same, or skirting censorship and the possibility of blasphemy to make a critical comment on each (or all). At this point, you’re wandering into the realm of the sense(less), a place where freaks are curious, yellow and the cook, the thief, his wife and her lover are as thick and human centipede thieves. It’s the world of the shocker, the controversial work of art that envisions a crucifix in a beaker of urine or a skinless human body preserved and positioned as sculpture.
Ever since Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler (soon to be known as Hedy Lamar) bared her naked breasts in the Czechoslovakian film Ecstasy, the artform known as film has been dealing with the creative desire to push envelopes and broach taboos. Sometimes, it’s shock for shock’s sake (as in the eyeball slice from Un Chien Andalou). In other instances, the meaning is so unfathomable that even the most daring audience member leaves their scratching their head (as in E. Elias Merhige’s surreal Begotten). From the Mondo movies to the various examples of gore (Bloodsucking Freaks) and gratuity (do we really need a 10-minute rape scene, Irreversible?), cinema seems to thrive on a good PR problem.
With that in mind, here is a list of what we think are the 10 most shocking and/or controversial films ever made. While they may not pack the same punch today, they were definitely shit stirrers at the time, beginning with one of the most infamous…
In some people’s minds, this should be the number one choice for any list like this. After all, Martin Scorsese dared show the Lord and Savior of several hundred million followers fornicating and living the life of a normal man. Of course, it was all a dream, a vision given to the Messiah as he hung dying on the cross. Still, just the mere idea that someone would sexualize Jesus stirred up a whirlwind of wasted energy. The Rapture didn’t occur when the film was released. Clearly, a superior intelligence understood the subtext.
Upon arrival, audiences were so shocked by this supposedly “true” story that police actually investigated. Director Ruggero Deodato was even arrested and charged with obscenity. Oddly enough, animal rights activists still have cause for concern. Like many goona-goona films, jungle creatures are cut up and tortured with reprehensible abandon. As for the journalists who supposed died while making the movie within a movie—it was all faked, a clever commentary on the way in which the news media sensationalizes stories to their own detriment. This is the real Blair Witch Project, and twice as powerful.
You can’t have a collection of controversial titles and not see Leni Riefenstahl’s name on it somewhere. Considered everything from a genius movie artist to a pawn of Hitler and the Third Reich, this document of the decisive rallies at Nuremberg is propaganda at its most misguided… and mesmerizing. Yes, this skilled filmmaker glamorized the genocidal regime and its ridiculous collection of kooks and crooks, but in retrospect, it was all show and no substance. So why is it still so disturbing? We can think of about 10-11 million individual reasons.
Remember that Danish cartoonist who got into a world of fundamentalist hurt when he dared depict the beloved Islamic prophet in a cartoon? Well, imagine the reaction today to a film about Mohammad’s life. Producer Moustapha Akkad, who would later gain fame as the man behind the entire Halloween franchise, wanted to celebrate his Muslim religion and its important leader. Only problem? Mohammad may not be depicted via image or human imitator under penalty of… well, you get the point. Akkad’s answer? Have the actors address the lens, in essence turning the camera into the subject.
When Ken Russell went after something, he really kicked it in the ass. Here, he decided that the book The Devils of Loudun by Aldous Huxley was the perfect vehicle for a no holds barred denouncement of organized religion—and Catholics specifically. Wrapped around the Inquisition and centering on a priest (Oliver Reed) who used a local nunnery as his own sexual staging area, the imagery was fierce and the reaction unreasonable. The UK mandated massive edits, while other countries either avoided it or banned it outright. Today, it is still almost impossible to see the full uncut version.