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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 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. 


“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 emotionally 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. 

“Brokeback Mountain” (2005)

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, 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 number of 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. 

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