The Most Controversial Films About Religion


People have been meditating on the image of a nearly nude and bound Saint Sebastian for centuries. The martyr is usually depicted with arrows piercing his flesh, bearing a rapturous expression — the subtext of which has inspired numerous writings and artworks, depicting the saint as an icon of queer culture. Derek Jarman’s 1976 movie Sebastiane explored similar themes, focused on the sexual/spiritual agony and ecstasy between two Roman soldiers. Severus’ lustful obsession with Sebastiane provokes him to torture the unattainable man, and the intersection of longing, faith, and violence is lyrically captured by the director (translated in Vulgar Latin, even). The film’s homoeroticism and striking realism caused a controversy amongst religious groups. Since the film has arrived on Blu-ray, we wanted to explore other contentious studies of spirituality. Mention your favorites, below.

The Devils

You’d be hard pressed to find a film by British filmmaker Ken Russell that hasn’t spurred some kind of controversy, but his 1971 film The Devils is one that still stands out from the others. The lurid iconoclast based his chilling tale on the famous Loudun possessions and public exorcisms that created hysteria amongst the Ursuline nuns and found wealthy, wanton 17th century priest Urbain Grandier executed for witchcraft. A lusty Oliver Reed brings the role to life, with Vanessa Redgrave depicting an unnerving, hunchbacked Mother Superior that becomes swept up in the sacrilegious, sexual frenzy. The overt, stunning imagery was troubling enough for critics and censors who found the film reprehensible — condemning its violence, the blasphemous orgy scene, and Reed sexualized as Christ — but the depiction of corrupt religious and political systems angered many groups around the world. It was censored and banned, rarely screened in its entirety post debut. The British Film Institute released the most complete cut of the movie in March, but 41 years later, they were still unable to include all the controversial footage in its entirety.

The Exorcist

So much has been written about William Friedkin’s 1973 film about a young girl who becomes possessed by the devil, but the disturbing and graphic imagery still haunts viewers to this day. Evangelist Billy Graham claimed “an actual demon lived inside the celluloid reels of the film.” Rumors about the movie and its production being cursed (due to real-life deaths and accidents that occurred during and after filming) created upset, and unsettling moments — like the cross masturbation scene — infuriated religious groups.


Both outspoken and controversial artists in their own right, director Theo Van Gogh and feminist author Ayaan Hirsi Ali collaborated on a 10-minute film criticizing the abusive treatment of four fictional Muslim women. Scenes where the actresses were nude with verses from the Koran scripted on their bodies shocked the Islamic world. The filmmakers faced death threats, and Van Gogh was violently assassinated by a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim fundamentalist as a result, leading to further unrest amongst Christian and Muslim groups.

The Birth of a Nation

D. W. Griffith’s 1915 drama depicting the Ku Klux Klan as southern saviors and African Americans as sexual demons led to widespread protests — many fronted by the NAACP, which had been founded just six years prior. City riots and violence seemed to follow the post-War film’s theatrical rotation, and subsequent rereleases proved that the controversy never truly faded. Griffith tried to make amends with his 1916 film Intolerance, which was a commercial failure (gee, we can’t imagine why), but it has since been critically praised.


This 1961 Luis Buñuel feature marked the first of three collaborations (The Exterminating Angel and Simon of the Desert were the others) with producer Gustavo Alatriste and starring Silvia Pinal. Buñuel had been openly critical of the Roman Catholic Church even in early works like Un Chien Andalou where the juxtaposition of dead donkeys, two priests, and the Ten Commandments made his feelings on religion quite clear. Viridiana — about a well-intentioned, young nun who is rewarded with nothing but tragedy — furthered this study of hypocrisy. It was also an opportunity for the filmmaker to take a jab at fascist dictator Francisco Franco who had invited him back to Spain after Buñuel’s exile to create the movie. He, of course, condemned the film. Although it won the Palme d’Or, the Vatican called it blasphemous. Buñuel’s response? “I didn’t deliberately set out to be blasphemous, but then Pope John XXIII is a better judge of such things than I am.”


Indian-born Canadian director Deepa Mehta won critical acclaim for the third installment in her “Elements Trilogy,” Water. Already under attack for earlier film Fire from conservative Indian/Hindu groups, Water almost never happened. The movie depicts the plight of Indian widows during the late 1930s, who had few choices after losing their husbands: death, marrying their brother-in-law, or live an impoverished life in a refuge camp. The day before filming, 2,000 protestors destroyed the set, and activist Arun Pathak organized a suicide protest to stop production. Mehta was forced to start over in Sri Lanke with a new cast and fake title (River Moon), keeping production under wraps. The film was nominated for a 2008 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

The Passion of the Christ

Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is like the Grand Guignol of Passion films, portraying Jesus’ final days with blood-soaked violence and uncomfortably long scenes of torture at the hands of “an evil cabal of Jews.” Gibson definitely wasn’t subtle. His Holocaust-denying father didn’t help when it came to claims of anti-Semitism, but that was just the tip of the iceberg for the 2004 movie. Critics questioned its historical and biblical accuracy (he based much of the movie on the writings of 18th century mystic Anne Catherine Emmerich) and responded negatively to the over-the-top violence. Conservative Christians praised it, and the controversial tale became one of the highest grossing films of all time (over $600 million during its theatrical release).

The Last Temptation of Christ

Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ was banned (in many countries it still is), censored, protested, and incited bombings when it was released in 1988. Christians didn’t want to see a married Jesus (Willem Dafoe) having sex with Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey), and living his life as a mortal man who had human doubts, desires, and fear. Archbishop of Paris, Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger was one of many who spoke against the movie before even seeing it, stating, “One doesn’t have the the right to shock the sensibilities of millions of people for whom Jesus is more important than their father or mother.”

Battlefield Earth

John Travolta wanted to make a movie based on Scientology leader L. Ron Hubbard’s book, Battlefield Earth. He struggled for funding due to its connection to the controversial religion’s strange origin mythology (aliens!). Eventually he dumped millions of his own money into production and created one of the worst films ever made — a bizarre piece of rumored propaganda that supposedly contains subliminal messages.

The Da Vinci Code

The Da Vinci Code is perhaps the most offensive religious film of them all, because it convinced publishers that we need more Dan Brown novels clogging up airports, and it convinced Hollywood that we actually want to watch more of the terrible Tom Hanks movies. The 2006 film has more than its fair share of haters, particularly the Catholic Church who argued against its theological inaccuracies. They were also offended at the suggestion that they were behind a mass coverup about Mary Magdalene and the Holy Grail. Production struggled with gaining shooting permits in holy places, while public and online protests called for it to be banned (it has been in several countries).