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17 Banned Films and What They Tell Us About the Power of Cinema

17 Banned Films and What They Tell Us About the Power of Cinema

“The Interview” (2014)

Why is a comedy starring James Franco and Seth Rogen at the top of the list? Because it is absurdly hilarious and equally terrifying to think that such a film could endanger world peace. Not only is this politically-charged bromantic comedy never reaching Pyongyang — hard to know if there are any theaters there anyway — but it also pushed Kim Jong-un’s kingdom to threaten “merciless” retaliation against the US. In all honesty, everyone should have expected the not-so-subtle Asian nation to do just that given the film’s premise. Certainly the team behind the film must be grateful for such a “flattering” reaction. The story follows the two friends, playing pop culture journalists, who are recruited by the CIA to assassinate none on other than North Korea’s supreme leader. Outraged, the country’s UN ambassador called the production of “The Interview” an “act of war,” which are strong words by anyone’s standards. Especially when they refer to a Hollywood flick that, at the time, hadn’t even been released. On the other hand, when your movie manages to ignite the possibility of nuclear warfare, then you know your PR team has done well. By that, of course, we mean the uncredited PR team: The North Korean government.

“Cannibal Holocaust” (1980)

For a 34-year-old film, this found-footage-pioneer still holds up as one of the most controversial and morally questionable horror spectacles ever created. Attempting to spark interest in his film, Italian director Ruggero Deodato went to great lengths to conceal as much information on the production as to make audiences believe it was a real documentary. By contractually forbidding his actors to appear on any visual media for a year after the release, he pretended to give the impression that the four Americans who travel to South America to shoot an ethnographic film about indigenous people were actually viciously murdered and devoured by the cannibal tribes. Deodato’s innovative and realistic filmmaking style, the convincing special effects and other marketing trickery worked so well that he ended up being accused of making a snuff film in which his cast were the victims. Eventually he was able to prove it was also make-believe by bringing his actors out of hiding. However, the animal cruelty shown in the film was actually real and earned him some punishment. Upon its original release, “Cannibal Holocaust” was banned in over 50 countries, today remains unavailable in several territories. Its graphic sequences made it very difficult for many to see the sophisticated commentary the Western notion of what is means to be civilized. Eli Roth’s recent feature, “The Green Inferno” is, evidently, heavily inspired by the sickening classic.

“A Serbian Film” (2010)


In the dark passages of brutally violent and exploitative entertainment there are gore porn movies and then there is “A Serbian Film,” a film so senselessly abhorrent it has become, by far, the most infamous production in recent cinematic history. Described by its director as both a statement about the post-war psyche of the Serbian population and a parody on the country’s film industry, the shock-horror production revolves around a retired porn star forced to commit the most depraved sexually violent and murderous acts in order to save his family’s life. Outright banned in almost a dozen countries including Spain, Norway, Australia and New Zealand, and released with major edits in others like the U.K, Germany and the U.S, “A Serbian Film” has achieved an unsettling cult status amongst horror fans. Viewing the film serves more to gain bragging rights for having endured the heinous collection of blood-splattered sequences than to provide any revelatory insight on the Balkan state. Do not look for it on Netflix, the company refuses to carry it both digitally and in its physical version.

“Last Tango in Paris” (1972)


One of Bertolucci’s finest films became the subject of fierce censorship based on what was considered by authorities as obscene images that masked “self-serving pornography as art.” But the film’s claim to notoriety was gestating long before its release. Erratic star Marlon Brando and French newcomer Maria Schneider both accused the Italian auteur of emotionally raping and manipulating them. According to the actress, the scandalous sex scene near the end of the film was not part of the original screenplay about a grieving American man falling primitively in love with a young Parisian woman. She claims to having found out about such sequence when it was already being filmed, which made her feel humiliated and betrayed. Critically the film was praised almost unanimously making it a financial success as well. In Italy, however, the Supreme Court seized all copies of the film, burned them, banned its exhibition for over a decade, and painted Bertolucci as a criminal. Its raw eroticism also caused “Last Tango in Paris” to be banned in countries like Chile, Portugal, South Korea, and parts of Canada.

“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974)

Deranged power tool aficionado Leatherface has a special place in the hearts of numerous horror fans, who have turned “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” into a highly profitable franchise for the past four decades. In 1974, Tobe Hooper’s original film became a cultural phenomenon that announced itself as a nightmarish tale based on true events. While loosely inspired by serial Ed Gein, this claim was for the most part false, but it did enhance the unnerving allure of the film. Although the idea of a group of teenagers being victimized by a sadistic murderer and his family for the sake of collecting keepsakes made out of flesh sounds extremely violent, Hooper’s approach was surprisingly not gory or overly graphic. Aware of this, he wrongly believed the MPAA would grant him a PG rating. Evidently, the level of psychopathic behavior displayed in his slasher magnus opus was more suited for adult viewing. At the time, Brazil, Germany, Iceland, France, Singapore, the U.K and other governments refused to allowed their citizens to watch it. Today it is regarded by some as the one of the greatest horror films ever made, how is that for a film that cost somewhere around $300,000. 

“The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988) 

It was obvious that portraying Jesus as a man with sexual desires and doubts about his own holiness would cause some people to lose their cool. Based upon the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, the film by legendary Martin Scorsese starred Willem Dafoe in the title role and Barbara Hershey as Mary Magdalene. In this fictional iteration, the pair is shown engaging in carnal pleasures and living a seemingly normal life away from what the Gospels dictate. Incendiary demonstrations against Marty’s religious reinterpretation came quickly. Thousands of protestors affiliated with numerous Christian organizations succeeded at forcing major theater chains not to screen the film, which served as a partial ban across the U.S. One of their leaders even offered to buy the negatives from Universal in order to destroy them. Nevertheless, the ferocious attacks the film received in California and other part of the country, faint in comparison to the violent reaction in France. During a screening of the film, a Christian fundamentalist group entered the Saint Michel Theater in Paris and launched Molotov cocktails into the crowd injuring about a dozen people and severely damaging the building. Traditionally Catholic nations like Mexico, Argentina and Chile condemned the film for over 15 years. In the Philippines and Singapore, “The Last Temptation of Christ” remains outright banned. 


”Cruising” (1980)

After receiving the stigmatizing X rating from the MPAA, director William Friedkin (“The French Connection”) was forced to cut around 40 minutes of the most sexually explicit material in his homosexual-themed psychological thriller “Cruising.” The film follows Al Pacino as detective Steve Burns, who goes undercover and immerses himself in the underworld of leather bars and S&M clubs to uncover the identity of a serial killer targeting this community. Controversy aroused long before the release with several outraged groups within the gay community protesting at several locations throughout NYC where the film was being shot. Stating that the film promoted violence by depicting homosexuality as a deviant lifestyle, furious protesters attempted to disrupt the production of what they considered a homophobic attack. On the mythical deleted footage Friedkin has mentioned he believes it was destroyed at United Artists, and that it mostly included graphic sexual acts that might have clarified the ambiguity of Pacino’s character. Departing from such intriguing occurrence, James Franco and Travis Matthews set to make an experimental reimagining of those missing images in their film “Interior. Leather Bar.” Added to the polemical reception at home, the film was banned in diverse countries such as Finland, Iran and South Africa. 

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