The Most Controversial Films of All Time

In the Realm of the Senses

in the realm of the senses

Based on a true story this Japanese film tells the tale of a dangerously sensual love affair carried out by an inn keeper and his servant girl. Their pleasure in each other is both unusual and monumental resulting in a tragic ending.

The graphic sex scenes meant that the film had to be listed as a French production because of Japan’s censorship laws. Once released, many countries banned the film outright although that has since changed.
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In the real life tale the woman ended up killing her lover during violent sex. She then proceeded to cut off his penis and testicles which she carried around with her in her purse until she was caught for the murder three days later. She managed to excape significant jail time and there are rumours that she continued to place flowers on the grave of her dead lover until she herself died.


Lolita is one of the most controversial films made for a mainstream audience as it tells the story of a man’s obsession with a 12 year old girl. Humbert Humbert, played by Jeremy Irons, marries a woman in order to get close to her child; the Lolita in question. After his new wife dies Humbert is left free to pursue his interest in Lolita.

Understandably distributors were nervous about the film but Irons’s strong performance and the fact that he was a serious actor gave the film a seal of respectability which meant it was not immediately written off. Critics cautiously liked the film although controversy surrounded it and now it is regarded as a classic.


The Passion of the Christ


Any film to do with religion will undoubtedly create controversy and that coupled with Mel Gibson made The Passion of the Christ one of the most controversial films ever made.

The film which focuses on the, torture, death, and resurrection of Jesus shocked many by the graphic violence. But worse than even that was the latent anti-Semitism some felt the film contained. One piece of dialogue stated: "His blood [is] on us and on our children!” pointing to Jewish responsibility for Christ’s death.

At the time Gibson dismissed claims of anti-Semitism however in light of more recent comments he has made we can no longer be sure. A group of US Catholic bishops were also quick to condemn the dialogue, saying: "it one of the most troublesome texts, relative to anti-Semitic potential, that any of us had seen in 25 years."


The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation is the epic silent film which tells the story of two families during and after the American Civil War.

The film was highly controversial as it portrayed African American men as simple and driven wild with lust for the white woman. The members of the Ku Klux Klan were shown as heroes and protectors of the South.

As soon as the film came out riots broke out and director D.W. Griffith was battered by accusations of racism. To counteract the onslaught of negativity and to prove that he was no racist Griffith went onto make the less successful Intolerance which left no room for ambiguity over whether racism is wrong or not.


Basic Instinct

Sharon Stone from Basic Instinct

Basic Instinct is a film about a detective chasing after a seductive potential serial killer. However that is not what most people remember when they think of the film; what they do remember – and pardon us for not being delicate – is Sharon Stone’s vadge.

The scene where she uncrosses and crosses her legs to reveal no underwear had audiences gasping. Later she would go onto insist that she was unaware that a camera was positioned right between her legs in order to catch a close up but her claim has been roundly dismissed by director Paul Verhoeven who insisted that Stone knew very well the shot he was after and willingly obliged him.

The film became a box office hit and a water cooler topic. It went onto make Stone a huge star but unfortunately it also became a cross to bear as she could never shake off the fact that she was the actress who had shown the world her bits.


Cannibal Holocaust


Cannibal Holocaust

Cannibal Holocaust is told in a faux-documentary style in which a film crew’s recovered footage is shown. The back story was that the crew had gone into the depths of the Amazon to film cannibalistic tribes and had since disappeared. When their footage is recovered it is discovered that the crew carried out a number of horrific acts on the natives in order to film exciting footage of violence.

The animal cruelty, rapes and violence shown on the film appalled many. Some viewers actually mistook it for a real snuff film. The film was banned in several countries and has never found a large audience and director Ruggero Deodato’s film licence was revoked for three years.


The Last Temptation of Christ


Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece depicted Jesus as a man who faced the same temptations as all other men most notably lust. Scenes which showed Jesus engaged in sexual activity with Mary Magdalene and in which Jesus lived an alternate life as a normal man caused outrage. 

In 1988 a reactionary fundamentalist Christian group in France attacked a cinema theatre with Molotov cocktails leading to 13 injured of whom four were left with serious burns. The film continues to be banned in the Philippines and Singapore.

However there are many film scholars and religious leaders who continue to champion the film, and who do not believe that the film challenges or sets out to challenge the Christian belief.


Natural Born Killers

Natural Born Killers

Natural Born Killers is the story of Mickey and Mallory Knox; an unhinged couple who go on a killing spree and are raised to the status of cult folk heroes by the modern media.

The glorification and the unintentional borderline admiration for the characters caused outrage. The film was meant as a satire but unfortunately audiences didn’t see it that way and neither did the people behind the spate of copycat killings which the film triggered. In fact John Grisham attempted to sue director Oliver Stone after a friend of his was left paralysed by two teens who shot him; the teens admitted to taking acid, watching the film and becoming inspired to carry out their assault.


Last Tango in Paris

Last Tango in Paris

Last Tango in Paris stars Marlon Brando as a grieving window who loses himself in a passionate anonymous affair with a young French woman - played by Maria Schneider - who is engaged to another man.

There is much nudity in the film but the one scene that caused the most controversy was the one in which Marlon Brando used butter as a lubricant prior to anal sex.

Schneider at the time of the film gave many frank interviews about her colourful sex life and appeared to be unconcerned by the uproar the film created but later on she was to change her stance.

Of the butter scene she is quoted as saying in a Daily Mail interview: "I should have called my agent or had my lawyer come to the set because you can't force someone to do something that isn't in the script, but at the time, I didn't know that. Marlon said to me: 'Maria, don't worry, it's just a movie,' but during the scene, even though what Marlon was doing wasn't real, I was crying real tears. I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci [the director]. After the scene, Marlon didn't console me or apologise. Thankfully, there was just one take."

She remained friends with Brando after the film although she admitted they did not speak of the film as Brando too sought to disassociate himself from the movie.

After her death Bertolucci said: "Her death came too soon, before I could hold her again tenderly, and tell her that I felt connected to her as on the first day, and for once, to ask her to forgive me. Maria accused me of having robbed her of her youth and only today am I wondering whether there wasn't some truth to that.”


A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange

Director Stanley Kubrick creates a visually arresting world in which Alex – played with notable charisma by Malcolm MacDowell – embarks on a crime spree with his gang of friends. They indulge in “ultra violence” which includes fights, break-ins and rape.

The film was named in two cases of assault and one gang rape as a triggering factor in the violence perpetrated. Kubrick and his family received death threats and he withdrew the film from UK distribution. Even after the furore died down and the cinema going public were arguably more receptive to the film Kubrick was in no mood to compromise even going so far as to sue the London Scala cinema into bankruptcy for showing his film.





But of course this list is not exhaustive, there are many other controversial films for example Salo, A Serbian Film and even the relatively tame in comparison The Da Vinci Code which too caused its fair share of feet stomping.
And there will always be more to come, for as long as there is imagination and film making even the most 'unthinkable' acts will somehow make its way onto our screens.

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