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

By Carlos Aguilar | Indiewire July 28, 2014 at 12:31PM

Here are 17 films that have been banned around the world for various reasons.

READ MORE: 'Closed Curtain' Director Jafar Panahi Talks About Making Movies Under House Arrest: 'Put Yourself in My Shoes'

"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. 

"The Da Vinci Code"  (2006)

In terms of artistic achievement, Ron Howard's "The Da Vinci Code" is dismissible, but given its touchy subject matter it was sure to provoke fiery responses from devoted Catholics around the globe. Banking on the source material's following, this film adaption about a secret conspiracy to hide the truth behind the perennially elusive Holy Grail was a massive financial success worldwide. Starring Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou, it portrayed the Vatican as a deceptive institution carrying out obscure cover up mission through organizations like the Opus Dei. Infuriated by the film, the Holy See condemned it by sating that it was an offensive and historically inaccurate work of fiction. In the U.S., some protesters were seen outside movie theaters upon its release probably encouraged by several Catholic Bishops calling for a boycott of the film. Based on Dan Brown's equally divisive novel, the cinematic version went on to be banned in China, Egypt, parts of India, Jordan, Samoa, the Solomon Islands and Sri Lanka, amongst others. Moral discomfort was particularly more intense in the Philippines, where religious authorities labeled it "the most pornographic and blasphemous film in history" and declared that the film was a "vicious attack on the divinity of Jesus Christ." Their prayers were heard when the film was effectively banned in the capital Manila and the country's major theater chain refuse to screen the film. 

"Noah" (2014)

Darren Aronofsky's recent biblical epic starring Russell Crowe in the eponymous role managed to bring in close to $360 million in spite of mixed reviews and unwelcoming reactions from diverse groups. Even though most Christians felt that film was a valuable and poignant reimagining of an important passage in the scripture, others weren't as pleased with the director's take. During the film's promotional campaign Aronofsky mentioned that his intention was to highlight the fact that Noah was the "first environmentalist" rather than focusing on the spiritual qualities of the story. These comments didn't sit well with some Christian leaders. In the Arab world, "Noah" was met with even harsher reaction because Islam prohibits the artistic portrayal of prophets and other important religious figures. Indonesia, Bahrain, Malaysia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and even China banned the film. Here in the States, the controversy was based on diversity concerns given that the film lacks the presence of any racial minorities. For some of the film's critics, the fact that only Caucasian people survive the divine flood is a cause for concern in terms of the message it sends to society. 

"Bruno" (2009)

Political incorrectness is Sacha Baron Cohen's weapon of choice when crafting his flamboyant and offensive characters. Unafraid of venturing into the grotesque and vulgar, the comedian raised his own bar exponentially with the incredibly raunchy "Brüno." Centered on a gay Austrian fashion reporter who embodies every negative homosexual stereotype, the film uses the same mockumentary approach as "Borat," Baron Cohen' previous crude comedy. Its irreverent humor and the way it caricatured gay men infuriated several members of the LGBT community. Some even compared the comedian's flamboyant act as offensive as a white person in blackface. Despite this, the film became a box-office success around the world with the exception of a few countries like the UAE. The ex-Soviet republic of Ukraine was outspoken about its strong feelings against homosexuality and decided that Brüno's casual orgies, extravagant sex toys, and love for S&M were simply too immoral and endangered its citizens righteous upbringing. Baron Cohen is no stranger to causing anger in that region of the world. "Borat" was considered an offensive defamation of the Kazakh culture, which eventually causes the film to be banned in Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Russia. Similarly, "The Dictator" was banned in Tajikistan, and several other central Asian republics for its "subversive" content. 

This article is related to: List, Lists, Lists, Movie Lists, MPAA, Ratings, Closed Curtain

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