There have been a fair share of religious films produced over the years. Most of them are rather tame, and typical religious propaganda, to be honest. But there are those select few that have really either attempted to shine light on “God’s children” in a rather grotesque or overwhelmingly, and overzealous way… or have shone light on the incredible absurdities of the religious, their beliefs, and their horrid actions.
From extolling the virtues of the insane tenants of Scientology via the awful acting of John Travolta… all the way to filmmakers being stabbed to death for detailing the abuse of women in fundamentalist Muslim households… well, suffice it to say religion, and films about religion, on either side of the argument, really do make a lasting impact on people (and sometimes a fatal one).
And so, below are fifteen religious films, both for and against, that have in one way or another stirred up an incredible amount of trouble, caused countless cases of abuse, and lead to more deaths than anyone might initially think.
15. The Da Vinci Code
Here begins the true controversy in earnest. The Da Vinci Code, based on the best-selling novel by Dan Brown, caused a big stir in the Catholic communities the world over. A clearly fictional story, playing with the history of certain biblical characters, suggesting that Mary Magdalene was in fact Jesus’ wife, had the ignorant in an uproar. Many took talks about the upcoming film as based on some level of fact, adding to the already controversial content of the film. Religious people rallied to fight the notion that the film portrayed the fictional mysteries therein as fact (which it certainly did not do). Though it must be said for the faithful: there was no full out boycott of the contentious film. Instead, along with the incredible marketing and ridiculous controversy, religious leaders hoped that viewing of the film and its focus on Jesus would spark interest in the bible’s key character. As it happens, the film did not do incredibly well, critically, but it did take in $758 million dollars worldwide; making it one of the highest grossing films of that year.
Oh one can never stray too far from Catholicism when it comes to religious films that have sparked controversy in some shape, way, or form. Dogma, perhaps the most hilarious, and intelligent films from one Kevin Smith, takes on a great deal of biblical tropes. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck as angels, Alan Rickman as the voice of God, Alanis Morissette as God (whose voice can kill), the token black angel in Chris Rock, and let’s not forget the Golgotha Shit Demon. This star-studded and shit-disturbing cast received over thirty thousand pieces of hate mail for what people perceived to be an anti-Christian film. Catholic groups all around the world held massive protests to stop the movie from hitting the big screen. And it wasn’t kept all that peaceful as Smith received several death threats. But hey, to be fair, if God created everything, then that means he also created the creator and controversy of the film. And at least Kevin Smith made sure to go about the whole ‘God’ issue with joviality in the opening of the film, with the famous tagline: “Even God has a sense of humor–just look at the platypus.”
To be completely fair to the religious people featured in this film, Bill Maher is a master of the quick cut. Meaning, of course, that when it’s more funny than factual, Maher will tend to cut for the sake of humour. A very humourous, and somewhat horrifying film, Religulous really does still point out some incredible flaws in the minds of the every day religious person. Pointing focus at those leaders who have used their followers for financial gain, or for sexual gratification, Maher really calls people on their bullshit. However humourously, Maher even exposes some pretty prominent members of this faith, or that, as complete and clear frauds. Stirring up plenty of controversy and making top dollar, Maher was accused of hatred of the Muslims, and sympathy for the Jews… and a general attitude that Christians are completely stupid. His witty and unfair editing, mixed with those facts about faith that do surface led to this quote “The worst scenes in Religulous are appalling for their methods; the best are appalling for their information.” From Ben Kenigsberg of Time Out New York, the quotation is just one fair analysis of the film. There are many analyses that are far for damning.
12. The Exorcist
Back to a little bit of Catholicism (of course), here comes the film that sparked the eventual flood “Exorcism of so-and-so-and-the-other-thing” type of films. Hitting the big screen in 1973, The Exorcist was packed with unpleasant, and graphic religious imagery, in a way that priests did not want their congregations to see. Never mind the cast and crew claims that the film was cursed: tele-evangelist Billy Graham has said “an actual demon lived inside the celluloid reels of the film.” Now demons, like the film, are fictional, but that didn’t stop people from having huge issues with the details of the film (you know, where the Devil lies). In addition to tackling the already controversial Christian practise of exorcism, perhaps the possessed Linda Blair, masturbating with a bloody crucifix might be part of the reason there was so much outrage. In spite of this outrage however, the film has taken in several hundreds of millions of dollars, and is considered to be one of the greatest of horror film classics.
Besides this film being amazing simply for having Jennifer Connelly, and Emma Watson in it (and perhaps that the only reason other than the age old expertise of Anthony Hopkins), Noah has got into a bit of trouble with Christians. Admittedly, this film has not managed the same sort of controversy as many of the others on this list. That being said though, there were many Christians up in arms (not literally this time) about just how different this story of Noah seemed to deviate from the Bible. A little more wrath, a little more drama, not quite two of every creature, and no bloody unicorns to speak of. In spite of the little bit of controversy, Noah still did manage to make over double its budget… or maybe that’s because of the controversy. It might be interesting to note that even many secular people, aware of the ridiculous story of Noah and his ark, took issue with this film, even right from the first trailer. It is amazing how ingrained the story is in people’s minds. So much so that the film distributor’s hand was forced into making a big flashy note about the film’s artistic license. Perhaps this helps to comfort people that the fictional film is only loosely based on the fictional story from the Bible?
10. God’s Not Dead
This particular films caused controversy on the other side of the faith fence, where the receptacles of reason reside. Starring the once adored Hercules, Kevin Sorbo, this film takes audiences on a overdone, cliché, and crucially false view of the rigors of reason. Proving people’s weaknesses for their insecurities regarding uncertainties, this film couches incredibly poor logic in the guise of overwhelming and faithful clarity. Ultimately killing off the film’s prominent atheist-come-Christian, just as he becomes “born again”, and goes to make nice with his Christian ex, the piece tries to portray some form of divine justice. A pretty pathetic attempt to scare people Christian, this film did ridiculously well at the box office, showing just how god-fearing so much of the world is. Given the sad reality that this was a religious film, for religious people, the reasonable and secular side of this discussion did not, as is typically decent of them, attempt to boycott, threaten, or kill anyone for the promulgation of the views found in the film.
9. Jesus Camp
Jesus Camp follows the lives of several Christian children, and the one ‘spiritual leader’ who aims to guide them. The guiding that Becky Fischer aims to do, however, is more about training these children to fight just as hard for their faith as the Muslim extremists do. Running a summer camp called ‘Kids On Fire’ (thankfully no actual immolation occurs), Fischer emotionally abuses young, impressionable minds. Causing a swath of controversy on both the secular side, as well as the left-leaning Christian side, Jesus Camp left audiences with a sense of terror… that same sense of terror that struck the hearts and minds of Americans on that fateful day in September 2001. The clear abuses shown in the film led to Fischer being asked not to come back to the rented facility in Devil’s Lake (not kidding). Vandalism began on the camp site, after the film debuted, and Fischer had this to say: “Christians go after me because of doctrinal issues, whereas the world is going after me because they think I’m another Adolf Hitler… They’re accusing me of raising a Christian Jihad.” A Christian Jihad that, in the film, she’s more than ready to accept responsibility for (even while making children pray over a cardboard cut out of George W. Bush).
8. Going Clear
One of the world’s most secretive, abusive, and fast-growing fictional belief systems, Scientology has been taking an incredible stand all over the world. There have been a great number of defections from the church, and a great number of people who have dared to stand against the forces of L. Ron Hubbard. A great many of these people have been met with threats, stalking, abuse, familial separation, and more. Claiming such stars as Tom Cruise, John Travolta, and Beck (but no longer Will Smith), the church of Scientology uses the power afforded them by their celebrity superstars, to help promote and protect their faith and secrets, respectively. However, in this tell-all film, Going Clear really digs deep into the core of the church, interviewing several once-high-ranking officers of the church. The abuses, thefts, and extortions, laid out for audiences, along with the revelations of the clearly made up tenants of the church by Sci-Fi author L. Ron Hubbard are extraordinary to say the least. Perhaps a hit from which Scientology will never fully recover, the church still stands and fights those who speak out, with ever-increasing fervor.
7. The Passion Of The Christ
This film hardly needs any sort of introduction. There is something about a religiously fundamental Christian, anti-Semite, Hollywood celebrity like Mel Gibson that makes people instantly aware of the horrors of this film. An incredibly glammed up, much-more-than-full-length piece of torture porn, the gratuitous Passion of The Christ has certainly sparked some contention from both the religious, and the secular alike. Fabricating an endorsement from the pope was just the beginning of issues people had with the film. Covering the last twelve hours of the life of Christ, it takes Gibson a quarter of that time to tell his story. It doesn’t help that the majority of that time is overwhelmingly violent, and almost solely based on the slow, excruciating torture of Jesus. To top those off, the film clearly, and seemingly purposefully portrays the Jews in a very negative light. So much so that hundreds of people came out of the woodwork to have a discourse about just how incredibly villainous the film made the Jews. With the already enormous Christian population in the world, no one of those who might be fundamentalist, need another excuse to hate the Jews for no good reason.
6. Innocence Of Muslims
Censored versions of this “film” can still be found on YouTube, and it is entirely likely that the full thirty minutes can be sourced somewhere deep in the recesses of the internet. Suffice it to say that the title is most certainly deceiving, and one can likely tell that by the blood-soaked, sword-wielding depiction of Muhammad above. Relegated to only two, fourteen minute trailers, Innocence of Muslims sparked incredible outrage in the Muslim community, leading to several lawsuits. Never mind the legal proceedings though. There also were riots on an international scale. Violent protests, including the killing of four Americans in Benghazi, ultimately led to hundreds of injuries and over 50 deaths. A great deal of Muslims were offended by, first, there being a depiction of Muhammad, and secondly that depiction being of a murderer, a pedophile and a womanizer. A Pakistani minister even offered a bounty for anyone who killed the film’s writer, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula. A federal court, given all the trouble, ruled that Google remove the videos completely from YouTube. Interesting that when people become offended and act in the same manner as their supposed prophet, governments bend to their every whim.
5. The Last Temptation Of Christ
If Willem Dafoe as Jesus Christ, and David Bowie as Pontius Pilate are not two good enough reasons to assume controversy, then let’s explore what other reasons may exist. This Martin Scorsese adaptation of the Nikos Kazantzakis novel The Last Temptation of Christ, really got people worked up for relatively tame reasons. Masturbating with a crucifix makes sense. Casting Alanis Morissette as God… makes sense. But getting all worked up over the mortal characterization of Jesus Christ in this little film… now that’s priceless. Jesus was allegedly both mortal and divine, so portraying Christ as a mortal man should hardly be controversial. But as soon as someone goes for a steamy sex scene with Mary Magdalene, and decides to skip the resurrection, it seems the weight of the Christian orthodoxy comes crashing down at terminal velocity. Not enough to simply express distaste for the film, The Last Temptation of Christ is still banned in several countries, including: Singapore, South Africa, and the Philippines.
One of the greater controversial films on the list, Submission saw the death of its director, Theo van Gogh, for his views on Islam. The film focuses on four Muslim women (all played by the same actor), who detail the abuse they received at the hands of their community, and especially their husbands. Not just this portrayal of abuse, but also the sexuality of the woman’s naked body seen through her chador, with painted verses from the Koran all over, sparked an incredible outrage. Only ten minutes, the film was enough for Mohammed Bouyeri, a Dutch Muslim of Moroccan descent, to shoot, stab, and mutilate Van Gogh; ultimately leaving a note on his corpse, held there by the embedded knife. The letter called for Jihad. The response? Tens of thousands gathered to mourn the death of the director. Then people began firebombing mosques, and Muslim schools… this violence was then met with attacks on Christian churches. Well known Muslim defector Ayaan Hirsi Ali (writer of the short film) said this, in response to the insult and outrage by the Muslim community: “If you’re a Muslim woman and you read the Koran, and you read in there that you should be raped if you say ‘no’ to your husband, that is offensive. And that is insulting.”
3. The Life Of Brian
This hilarious addition to the works of the Monty Python crew garnered some miraculous (pun intended) amount of scathing ridicule. Brian Cohen, mistaken to be the messiah, meets the same fate as one Jesus Christ (who is present briefly, early on in the film). There were protests against the film all across the globe, for its jovial take on such sickening and serious stories as the crucifixion of Christ. On its initial release in the UK, the film was banned by several town councils, many of which had never even seen the film. Catholics and Jews worked together to organize pickets, where nuns, and rabbis alike came out in droves to stand their ground at cinemas in New York. Some American states simply banned the film outright. It was also banned for eight years in the Republic of Ireland (heavily Christian country that it is— no matter which side of the Falls Road one sits). It was even banned for a year in Norway and was subsequently marketed in Sweden as “the film so funny that it was banned in Norway”. There is a wonderfully famous talk show segment with some of the Pythons defending the film to a bishop, and the good ol’ BBC bigot, Malcolm Muggeridge.
2. Battlefield Earth
Well, full disclosure… Battlefield Earth did not truly strike up a ton of controversy. What’s most interesting about this little John Travolta number is just how little controversy it did manage to cause. It failed even to generate numbers at the box office, let alone audience members who were truly stirred by the content of the piece. It is entirely likely that those who did venture to see this interesting film in theatre (or people like this author who caught it later on the age old VHS), never even happened to know just what the film was about. Turns out the ‘Worst Picture of the Decade’ (2010), was based on a novel by fraud, and founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard. A stir that was caused around Hollywood was Travolta’s incessant pitching of the film to production houses all over. Eventually landing a production house near as fraudulent as Hubbard himself, Travolta also sunk millions into the project to ensure its fruition. Meant to be a sequel, the film was so critically and commercially reviled that it flopped fantastically, and a sequel to the Scientology saga of human slavery never saw the light of day.
Following protests and theater attacks surrounding her previous instalment of her “Elements” trilogy films Fire, Indian-Canadian film director, Deepa Mehta found herself up to her neck, thanks to her third and closing film of the trilogy: Water. Her previous film Fire, containing a lesbian relationship in it, saw the trashing of storefronts, cinema windows, and the tearing down of posters by angry mobs. Water, which focuses on the hard life of Hindu widows, circa the late 1930s, met with angry mobs even at the shores of the Ganges. Tearing down, and burning set pieces, while at the same time threatening Mehta herself, the film had to be shot in Sri Lanka instead. To think, the river that is said to be “liquid love of God”, and is looked at as a communal karma bath, is the very spot where an angry mob (thousands strong) came and burned down an attempt at expression. One shudders to consider what bad karma the mob will receive for such a diabolical act. A local “activist” (though extremist is certainly a better word) even began a suicide protest in an effort to halt production (one wonders if the “activist” was the sole participant, as it would be difficult to get the message of hate across after death). In spite of the incredible hardships she faced, Mehta did finally produce the film, and it was nominated for a best foreign language Oscar in 2007.