One of the biggest taboos in modern society is religion. Along with politics, it’s one of those things you are advised to shy away from in conversation. However, films have shown things that are both awe inspiring and controversial. Films like the Bible Epics of Cecil B. DeMille including The Ten Commandments (1923, 1956) fit into the former category. But since my theme is Taboos, I’ll be focusing on films that fit into the latter one.
The Monty Python’s classic The Life of Brian (1979) is a lighthearted parody of the classic Bible story. For those who aren’t familiar with the film, a Jewish man named Brian is mistaken for Jesus and antics ensue. The Pythons make a mockery of organized religion that brought about many protests at the time of its release. The dialogue shows that the idea of the film is to question religion and its practices. For example, early on in the film the Three Wise Men mistakenly arrive at Brian’s manger. They declare, “We were led by a star!” To which Brian’s mother replies, “Led by a bottle, more like.” One of the best lines of the film occurs in a sequence when Brian is being harassed by followers who believe him to be the Messiah. He yells at them saying, “Look, you've got it all wrong! You don't NEED to follow ME, You don't NEED to follow ANYBODY! You've got to think for your selves! You're ALL individuals!” The Crowd replies in unison, “Yes! We’re all individuals!” Most of the controversy surrounding the film stemmed from their portrayal of Brian on the cross. The crucifixion is seen as a mildly uncomfortable form of punishment rather than the torturous mode of capital punishment that it really is. Although they make light of the situation, it stresses the fact that crucifixion is not merely a Christian symbol, but a widespread system of capital punishment used by Romans. Python’s controversial film struck a chord with many. It was named as The Guardian’s “Greatest Comedy of All-Time”, BFI’s 28th Best British film of all time, and it has a 98% approval rating on the website Rotten Tomatoes showing that sometimes taboos can be hilarious.
The highly controversial 2004 Mel Gibson film The Passion of the Christ is one that would definitely be listed as taboo. Entertainment Weekly named it #1 on its list of most controversial movies of all time, and it has garnered significant attention for its depiction of Jews. Religion is always a touchy subject, but Mel Gibson brought it to the forefront with this film. Many people criticized the film as anti-Semitic in its approach to the scriptures. It emphasizes a corrupt group of Jewish officials who were blackmailed by Pontius Pilate to put Jesus to death. This version of the story has been rejected by the Catholic Church at Vatican II and by most Protestant churches. The Anti-Defamation League declared that the film is not overwhelmingly anti-Semitic but “For filmmakers to do justice to the biblical accounts of the passion, they must complement their artistic vision with sound scholarship, which includes knowledge of how the passion accounts have been used historically to disparage and attack Jews and Judaism.” Basically, it emphasizes stereotypes of Jews and sparks anti-Jewish sentiments. It polarizes “good Jews” and “bad Jews” by their appearances (models – like Monica Belluci who plays Mary Magdalene – vs. big noses, greasy, yellow toothed Jewish priests). This is similar type of controversy that arose in regards to race with D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. The cherry on the top of this argument for its anti-Semitic views is a line Gibson has said he debated including. Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest, states, “His blood [is] on us and on our children!” The line was omitted from the text of the subtitles, but was included in the Aramaic dialogue. No matter what your religious views may be, as always with a film like this, it must be seen through a critical eye. And as usual, criticism brings controversy.
One of the most controversial religious films of all-time is Jean-Luc Godard’s Hail Mary (1985). It’s a modern retelling of the birth of Jesus Christ to Mary, a young basketball player and student, and Joseph, her boyfriend. The angel Gabriel is portrayed as a taxi driver who comes to reveal Mary’s pregnancy and help Joseph accept the fact that his girlfriend, who doesn’t allow him to kiss her, became pregnant. She visits her doctor who examines her hymen because of his disbelief in the virgin pregnancy. She wears all white and experiences pain, ripping at her sheets. There are also many scenes that contain full frontal nudity of Myriem Roussel who plays Mary. There are others, such as a close up of her fingers brushing her pubic hair, to the point where the nudity seems excessive. Godard philosophizes as always, this time he posits some religious questions about Christianity furthering the controversy. Mary states, “God is a vampire who suffered me in Him because I suffered and He didn’t and He profited from my pain.” Pope John Paul II had some harsh words for the film (or at least as harsh as a Pope can get). Protesters showed up in droves on opening night to stop people from seeing the film. And although it got mostly mixed reviews across the board for its portrayal of the story, it still remains a compelling example of filmmaking.
Religion is at its core something personal. Film takes that and brings it out into the public eye. It’s a topic that will always draw controversy due to its highly private nature, but maybe putting the beliefs out in the open, with this and other taboos, will make people more aware of the views of those around them. And film is the perfect medium to express these taboos.