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

Photo of Carlos Aguilar By Carlos Aguilar | SydneysBuzz July 28, 2014 at 12:31PM

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

Controversy is the best free publicity.

The mere idea of prohibiting a film from being seen speaks to the power of the medium to address subjects ranging from politics and social issues to religion. In many cases, governments and other authority figures find certain cinematic voices threatening to their beliefs and lifestyles. They would prefer to keep those images away from the public consciousness rather than encouraging debate or promoting tolerance. Recent examples of such practices are the cases of Iranian filmmakers Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof -- whose latest courageous works, "Closed Curtain" and "Manuscripts Don’t Burn" -- have faced strong government sanctions. Exposing the extreme oppression under which artists must attempt to work, these films were seen as direct attack against the regime. Both films were defiantly created in secrecy after their directors were banned from making movies. Needless to say, while prohibited in their homeland, both films are currently having a theatrical run in the U.S.

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

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

1."The Interview" (2014)

The Interview

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 has 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 hasn'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.

2. "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 soon to be released film "The Green Inferno" is, evidently, heavily inspired by the sickening classic.

3. "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.

4. "Last Tango in Paris" (1972)

Maria Schneider and Marlon Brando in 'Last Tango in Paris.'
Maria Schneider and Marlon Brando in 'Last Tango in Paris.'

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.

5. "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (1974)

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre photo

Deranged power tool aficionado Leatherface has a special place in the hearts of numerous horror fans, which has 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 enhanced the unnerving allure of the film. Although the idea of a group of teenagers being victimized by a sadistic murder 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. 

6. "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. 

7. "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 accepts to go undercover and immerse 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. 

8. "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, 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. 

9. "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 such 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. 

10. "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 Coen 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. 

11. "Hail Mary" (1985)

Esoteric French auteur Jean Luc-Godard has never been one to cringe in the face of scandal. He has increasingly been making less and less accessible films, which revel in abstraction and experimentation. These days he seems uncompromisingly unconcerned with story. But in his more narrative–centric years, Godard's enterprises were still never safe. His 1986 work "Hail Mary" was deemed as a sacrilegious attack on religion by Pope John Paul II, he believed it would emotional harm believers. Devoted catholic nations like Argentina and Brazil banned the French art house picture. In other places like the U.S. and its native France, people protested outside theaters playing the film while lighting candles and holding rosaries. Godard's film was a reinterpretation of the Virgin Mary myth adapted to the modern era in which Marie is a young student who suddenly becomes pregnant with the Son of God while being a virgin. Adorned with profanity, nudity, and erotic blasphemous undertones it seemed like the perfect recipe to cause the indignation of many religious authorities. Moreover, at the film's premiere in Cannes the iconoclastic director took a shaving cream pie to the face from an upset audience member who wanted to avenge his wounded spiritual convictions. 

12. "Brokeback Mountain" (2005)

"Brokeback Mountain"
'Brokeback Mountain'

This beautifully shot, superbly acted, and emotionally devastating love story became one of the most acclaimed American films in history. Still, the fact that the central relationship was between two married cowboys in rural America propelled it into the arms of hardcore conservatives. Several Christian groups went to great lengths to mock, defame, and attack the film on the grounds that the homosexual behavior depicted on Ang Lee's masterpiece was against traditional values. In Utah for example, a theater owner refused to screen the film hours before its opening citing similar concerns regarding its content. Other states also had very negative responses solely based on the subject matter. Abroad, Ennis and Jack's romance was banned in most Middle Eastern countries like the UAE in which same-sex love is still criminalized. Nonetheless, "Brokeback Mountain" became one of the most talked about films of that year. It went on to get innumerable awards, and cemented Ledger, Gyllenhaal, and Lee's careers even after it was shamelessly robbed of the Best Picture statue at the Academy Awards. Love it or hate it, the world still doesn't know how to quit this film. 

13. "300" (2006)

Incessant bloodbaths and animalistic sex scenes could have definitely been cause for alarm regarding Zack Snyder's visually stunning adaptation of Frank Miller and Lynn Varley graphic novel, however, trouble aroused for more ideological reasons. In the film, the great ancient Spartans warriors go to war with the Persian Empire, who follows the orders of Xerxes, an effeminate king whose divine power is as grotesque as it is menacing. Offended by such unflattering characterization, the Iranian government banned the film considering it a revolting example of American propaganda. Not satisfied with preventing the film from screening there, Tehran submitted a complaint denouncing the production to UNESCO citing that it misrepresented and hurt the country's national identity and historical legacy. In addition to this, "300" also came under media scrutiny because of the hyper-masculine behavior of its heroes set against their unmanly enemies, in response Snyder said it was done to play into the homophobia of the film's target audience: straight young males. Obviously such statement did not sit well with many who considered it promoted such discriminatory fear. On top of all this, the idealized vision of war and superhuman fighting skills showcase, which were hidden under numerous historical inaccuracies, were also criticized. Despite it all, the film became a moneymaking pop-culture success and a sequel entitled "300: Rise of an Empire" was released earlier this year. 

14."Ken Park" (2002)

Teenage promiscuity in American suburbia is undoubtedly a subject that deviates from the norm, but for provocateur Larry Clark that seems not to be an issue. With films like "Kids" and "Bully" in his filmography, it was only a matter of time before he decided to fully dive even further into risky territory. Telling the stories of several adolescents experiencing abuse, drug addiction, underage sex, and violence, the film penned by Harmony Korine was seen by many as an exploitative exercise. While the film was only officially banned in Australia, this event was the cause for a major debate on censorship in that country. When the Office of Film and Literature Classification refused to allow the film to be screened at the Sydney Film Festival, a group of citizens and industry professionals, known as Free Cinema, scheduled a protest screening at a city hall. As the organizers were about to show the film to a pack house of eager viewers, a police squad intervened. They confiscated the illegal DVD and arrested several people. Due to a physical altercation between Clark and the head of the film's U.K distributor, "Ken Park" was never released there. To make matters worse, the highly explicit nature left it without U.S distribution. 

15. "Irreversible" (2002)

Told in reverse chronological order and dealing with the permanent consequences of revenge, Gaspar Noe's 2002 shocking film was highly confrontational to say the least. Containing one of the most brutal scenes ever put on screen in which a woman, played by Monica Bellucci, is raped and beaten, the film was created to be a high intensity experience. Besides this almost unbearable sequence, "Irreversible" also displays a hefty dose senseless violence and sex all within the context of a morally corroded society. In New Zealand the film was initially banned because of the unspeakable crimes it depicts, but such sanction was later revoked and the film was allowed a theatrical release with an advisory warning attached. Still, since censors believed the film would be accessible to children and teens if it permitted to be issued on DVD, the home entertainment releases were banned making it unavailable after its theatrical run. Simultaneously in the Kiwi nation, film critic Chris Banks deemed Noe's sophomore effort as "the most homophobic film ever released" due to the detrimental images of homosexuals included in the film. 

16. "Persepolis" (2007)

indieWIRE INTERVIEW | "Persepolis" Co-directors Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud
SPC "Persepolis"

Iranian cinema has always been considered as deeply poetic and of high artistic pedigree, which is a miraculous accomplishment given the relentless censorship and constraint filmmakers there must face. Freedom of expression is not a concept that really applies in the Islamic republic, and this is evident in the cases of directors Jafar Panahi ("Closed Curtain") and Mohammad Rasoulof ("Manuscripts Don't Burn") who have been prosecuted because of their film's provocative content. By the same token, when expat Marjane Satrapi turned her autobiographical graphic into an animated feature dealing with life in pre-revolutionary Iran and her struggles moving to France, the government claimed the film presented an unrealistic version of the events. Both Iran and Lebanon originally banned Satrapi's debut, but later recanted their decision allowing it to be screened with the sexual elements censored. More recently in Tunisia, the owner of a private TV station was put on trial after allowing the film to be broadcast which the local government considered goes against "sacred values." Fortunately, none of these setbacks affected its overall success that included an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature. 

17. "Ecstasy" (1933)

Nothing seems like a better candidate for censorship like a 1933 Czech film said to be the first to feature sexual intercourse and a female orgasm on screen. Directed by Gustav Machaty, the film was astonishingly ahead of its time since it focused on Eva, (Hedy Lamarr) a young bride whose sexual needs are not met at home and who feels compelled to seek satisfaction elsewhere. Prominent nudity, religious visual references, and justified adultery were considered overwhelmingly indecent for conservative American groups back then such as the Catholic Legion of Decency. Thus, "Ecstasy" also became the first ever film to be refused entrance into the U.S. by the federal government. Almost a decade later an edited version was released in a few states, while it remained forbidden in others such as Pennsylvania. Similarly, the film also caused uproar in the world stage. Adolf Hitler banned the film in Germany and Pope Pius XII denounce it for its immoral imagery. Defying the status quo of that era, the erotic and female empowering art house classic was a trailblazer for provocative filmmaking.

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