Movies don’t try to please everyone. Tailor-made for certain demographics, some filmmakers try to entertain or provoke discussion, knowing full well their movie will offend a particular group. The most inflammatory of these movies attempt to question taboos, rituals and customs of many of the world’s most popular religions.
Some films bolster the beliefs of certain religions either intentionally or unintentionally through offending its audience. For instance, the first “Exorcist” film which took advantage of the big “Satanism” movie genre of the 1970’s literally scared churchgoers back into the pews. Those aren’t the movies I’m talking about here.
The movies in this list fully expected and possibly depended upon offending certain religions in order to succeed. Sometimes the film in question preys upon longstanding fears and prejudices in order to make a point. Here are 10 movies designed to offend your (or someone else’s) religious beliefs (Note: The Small Town Critic does not endorse or defend any of the viewpoints these films present)…
10. TEARS OF KALI (2004)
• Whom does it offend? – Hindus, Eastern Indians, New Age practitioners
The German horror effort “Tears of Kali” relies on xenophobia to achieve its scares. The influx of Indian immigration into the country has apparently lead to concerns by indigenous Germans that the Indian cultural “new age” influence will lead to an increase in cultish activity, mysticism and worship of unsavory deities. While any country with a healthy Indian population would quickly dispel this as a nonsensical fear, the wily German creators of this film seem intent on capitalizing on this knee-jerk reaction to cultural exchange.
9. HELLRAISER (1987)
• Whom does it offend? – All faiths who believe in heaven and hell
While it might seem like a simple tale of good vs. evil, “Hellraiser” has a more subversive underlying message. It appears to suggest no clear heaven or hell exists and that pleasure and pain are indivisible. While you might suffer at first at the hands of the frightening “Cenobites,” over time the torture – which is your only source of stimulation – will eventually become your pleasure and therefore your heaven. While most devotees would probably concern themselves more with the gore and blasphemous imagery, few would notice the more controversial concept of this tale.
8. STIGMATA (1999)
• Whom does it offend? – Catholicism
At the time of its release, “Stigmata” did not draw near as much controversy as its box-office competitor “Dogma.” While many criticized the comedic satire of Kevin Smith’s “Dogma” (a strangely pro-Catholic movie), few even questioned the potentially destructive message of “Stigmata.” The film concerns a woman (Patricia Arquette) who, afflicted by the gift/curse of stigmata, uncovers a lost chapter of the Bible in which Jesus discourages his followers from buying into organized religion and churches, stating that they are not needed to achieve a place in heaven, only belief is necessary. This of course enrages the (fictional) Vatican who attempts to destroy this damaging epistle; however, the real Vatican felt ignoring this movie was its best strategy.
7. FRAILTY (2001)
• Whom does it offend? – Fundamental Protestants
When a loving single father (Bill Paxton) in rural Texas suddenly informs his two pre-teen sons of a divine vision in which an angel instructs him to “slay demons,” the older son must find a way to stop his father from killing seemingly harmless members of the community. This film addresses the idea of “blind faith” as a frightening and dangerous concept. While the creepy, Twilight Zone-like ending of the film sends mixed messages about its intentions, the film does encourage viewers to question religious cannon rather than obeying without argument… An idea that’s sure to offend the most fundamental of Christian religions.
6. THE BELIEVERS (1987)
• Whom does it offend? – Practitioners of primal-indiginous Caribbean/African religions (including Voodoo and Santeria)
While many might be quick to condemn these religions as pagan and possibly even Satanic, few realize their deep cultural roots and relationship to Christianity which the practitioners often worship simultaneously. The story involves a widowed father (Martin Sheen) who falls into a dangerous cult of white collar businessmen who gain power and wealth from pagan African gods by sacrificing their firstborn children. Another film that relies on xenophobia and racial (black) fears, the film suggests that religious immigrant influence will corrupt the social and religious fabric of America. It punctuates this point in the chilling final scene where the heroine (Helen Shaver) casually sacrifices an entire barnyard full of animals to ensure the future well being of her family.
5. IN THE NAME OF BUDDHA (2002)
• Whom does it offend? – Buddhists
This award-winner was slammed for its content that portrays Buddhists in Sri Lanka as a genocidal society who engaged in ethnic warfare with the (Muslim/Christian) Tamils. While the winning side of such battles usually draws the ire of the international community for committing war crimes, demonizing a largely peaceful religion can be considered a low blow. While there are no clear villains or heroes to Westerners in this very real and tragic chapter in Sri Lanka history, Buddhists consider this film one-sided and unfairly misrepresentative of their ways.
4. THE DAVINCI CODE/ANGELS AND DEMONS (2006 & 2009)
• Whom does it offend? – Catholicism and some aspects of Christianity
This one-two punch from author Dan Brown prompted the Vatican to declare its sovereign grounds off limits to director Ron Howard while shooting these films. “The DaVinci Code” suggests that the Holy Roman Church has suppressed information about Jesus that would undermine their control and would willingly murder to keep it a secret. “Angels and Demons” further suggests the Church is also politically corrupt, needlessly dogmatic and defunct due to internal power struggles. Add a bit of sci-fi and mysticism and there’s no wonder why the Catholic Church is vexed by this franchise.
3. MARTYRS (2008)
• Whom does it offend? – Christians
This shocking French horror film (review here) starts as a bloody revenge flick then suddenly surprises viewers by turning into a philosophical thriller with a controversial religious message. The change happens halfway through and ventures into similar territory as “Frailty.” It presents the idea that the search for divinity can be paved with justifiable atrocities… that others can be sacrificed in order to obtain proof that not only does God exists, but that he rewards abominable behavior as long as it’s in his name. This very dangerous concept results in a haunting ending that’s both infuriating and thought provoking.
2. THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004)
• Whom does it offend? – Judaism
Mel Gibson’s pro-Christian masterpiece of the last days of Jesus Christ did not emerge from the box office unscathed by critics. Allegations that the film portrayed Jews as villainous stereotypes prompted protests from the Jewish community far and wide. Drunken anti-Semitic remarks made by Gibson himself added additional fuel to the media firestorm. The graphic brutality inflicted upon Jesus (Jim Caviezel) at the hand of the Jews and the Roman soldiers, as portrayed in the film, elicited disgust and outrage from Christian audiences. Activists in support of Judaism say the film has ignited a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Christians across the world, a claim that some (but not all) Christians and fans of the film deny.
1. THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988)
• Whom does it offend? – Christians
This Martin Scorsese picture (adapted from the famously-banned book by Kikos Kazantzakis) drew fire from Christian activists long before it appeared in the theaters. The story shows Jesus’ last days from his perspective. The crux of the controversy stemmed from the idea that Jesus was subject to human emotions and felt tempted to sin on numerous occasions, but never did despite a dream sequence which depicts him having sex with Mary Magdaline. While critics lavished the film with awards, enraged devotees still universally condemn it despite its otherwise painting the religion in a positive light. Other films have sense eclipsed it in terms of supposed “blasphemous” content, but none have equaled its unprecedented level of public outrage.