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Inventory: Nine Acts Of Film Blasphemy

1. "The Last Supper," Viridiana (1961)

When considering blasphemy in cinema, viewers can take their pick of Luis Buñuel films: The hypocrisies of the Catholic Church rank second only to those of the bourgeoisie among Buñuel's favored satirical targets. But Viridiana deserves special mention for moxie alone. After a 20-year exile, Buñuel unexpectedly returned to Franco's fascist Spain and made a film so scandalous that it was condemned by the Vatican and banned from screening in its host country for 15 years. The first half follows a boldly sexualized nun who's drugged and nearly raped by her lecherous uncle, and it includes such accessories as a crucifix that turns into a knife. But the recreation of Da Vinci's The Last Supper really tips the scales. After the nun brings a group of wretched street beggars and drunks into her uncle's estate, her houseguests throw a formal dinner marked by rowdy boozing and gluttony. At the end of it, they gather around for a picture that mirrors Da Vinci's painting, only in this case, the artist is flipping up her skirt while getting the shot.

2. "My first rosary job," Multiple Maniacs (1970)

It says something when a film ends with its star getting raped by a giant lobster, and that's only its second most outrageous moment. About 20 minutes into John Waters' second feature, star Divine goes to worship at a church and ends up contemplating Christ's crucifixion (re-created, unconvincingly, in Baltimore) while making out with fellow churchgoer Mink Stole. One thing leads to another, and a rosary gets used for unconventional purposes. The scene goes on forever, yet strangely, it remains less disgusting than Mel Gibson's The Passion Of The Christ.

3. The ecclesiastical fashion show, Fellini's Roma (1972)

The ever-adventurous Federico Fellini eschewed plot altogether for Roma, his sketchy cine-essay on what Rome has meant to Italians throughout history. He takes a satirical, Buñuelian turn late in the film, presenting a parade of the latest in clergy-wear, from nuns' habits with long, flapping wimples ("useful for interiors with poor circulation") to deacon outfits equipped with roller skates ("the quicker to paradise"). The scene starts out light and playful, but it begins to shift tones around the time that bishops begin walking the runway in form-swallowing furs, disco-ball reflective panels, and flashing neon. And then the whole affair ends grimly with a float full of skeletons wrapped in gauzy netting, and an extreme low-angle shot of an inert pope sitting on an obscenely ornate throne. Roma's fashion-show sequence may qualify more as social commentary than heresy, but if the Spanish Inquisition were still around, it's unlikely that they'd be amused.

4. Regan and the priests, The Exorcist (1973)

Most "devil movies" kowtow to people of faith by insisting that God is real, while also giving the damned a chance to groove on watching religious types get a little bruised. In The Exorcist, shortly after Ellen Burstyn witnesses her daughter Linda Blair jab at her vagina with a crucifix while growling, "Let Jesus fuck you," Burstyn calls in the priests, who get vomited upon, mocked, and battered by flying debris, all while enduring a string of the foulest oaths ever uttered by a rotting preteen girl. (The words "cock" and "suck" both get a good workout.) On one level, the movie's climactic sequence is about Christ's power to cast out demons. On another, it's about seeing holy men get cussed out.

5. "Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life," Life Of Brian (1979)

Less an act of blasphemy—though that charge was leveled by countless conservative pundits prior to its release—than a passionate, convincing (and quite funny) plea for skepticism, Monty Python's epic tale of a man with the misfortune of being born in the next stable over from Jesus ends with an unfailingly optimistic Eric Idle composition called "Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life." And it's performed by a hill-full of men hanging from crosses. A mixed message? Absolutely, but one that keeps perfectly with the film's let's-remain-rational-in-spite-of-the-absurdity tone, particularly when it hits this spoken-word interlude: "I mean, what have you got to lose? You know, you come from nothing, you're going back to nothing. What have you lost? Nothing!"

6. The last temptation of Christ, The Last Temptation Of Christ (1988)

It speaks to the infantile level of religious dialogue in this country that the life and death of Jesus can be fetishized (The Passion Of The Christ) and exploited (The Da Vinci Code) to mainstream riches, while a genuinely spiritual work like Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation Of Christ gets protested into the ground. Like Da Vinci Code, Scorsese's film explores Christ's human side, but only as part of the journey to a divine destination. As He suffers on the cross, the Devil appears in the form of a guardian angel and informs Him that God has saved Him. Thus begins an extended fantasy in which Jesus lives out the remainder of his days as an ordinary man: He marries Mary Magdalene in an earthly paradise, fathers children, and labors as a carpenter until old age, reaching his deathbed until a straight-talking Judas intervenes to break the spell. What Scorsese proposes—that part of Christ's suffering was giving up the easy road to mortal happiness—makes The Last Temptation Of Christ the least blasphemous film on this list. And yet it remains the most notorious to this day.

7. A sinful detective confronts Christ, Bad Lieutenant (1992)

At heart, Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant concerns a deeply lapsed Catholic's tortured route to some measure of forgiveness and salvation, but it takes some doing to get there. By the time Harvey Keitel's corrupt cop pleads for mercy, viewers have seen him steal and shoot heroin, peep lasciviously at a hospitalized nun after she's been gang-raped, negotiate an appalling way for two underage girls to get out of a ticket, and gamble away his life's savings on the Mets. When the nun decides to forgive the men who violated her, Keitel spirals into a crisis of faith, awakening spiritual beliefs that had long been repressed by sin. His journey reaches its apotheosis when he tearfully confronts a hallucination of Christ in an empty church, greeting him as only a New Yorker could. ("You got somethin' you wanna say to me, you fuck? You ratfuck?!") Christ never responds, which only goads Keitel into further belligerent invective, since he blames Him for not being there for him. A rosary gets chucked, too, but in the end, the scene is about a wayward man coming to terms with his dormant faith, albeit in the most inflammatory way possible.

8. The petty blasphemies of The Passion Of The Christ (2004)

All movies about the life of Jesus court blasphemy, since they require writers, directors, and actors to offer personal interpretations of what Christ was really like. Which means most Christians have to base their approval of non-Biblical Jesus tales on what they presume to be the intent. Sweet stories about walks on the beach where "the Lord carried me"? Inspirational! The Last Temptation Of Christ? Unclean! And what about The Passion Of The Christ? It was warmly embraced by evangelicals upon its release in 2004, but typing "movie blasphemy" into any Internet search engine will quickly produce a handful of fundamentalists staunchly raging against Mel Gibson's film, for reasons ranging from Jim Caviezel's "weak" portrayal of Jesus to Gibson's heavy reliance on Anna Catherine Emmerich's deeply Catholic "divine visions." Through the right set of eyes, even the pious can look profane.

9. The symbology of Da Vinci's The Last Supper explained, The Da Vinci Code (2006)

Any time a film dares consider Christ's human side, it's asking for trouble from religious groups (see also: The Last Temptation Of Christ), but the conspiracy proposed by this literal-minded adaptation of Dan Brown's bestseller is truly hair-raising—or at least it would be if it weren't so extravagantly ridiculous. While fleeing heavies from Opus Dei—a hyper-conservative Catholic sect determined to suppress "the truth" at all costs—a Harvard scholar (Tom Hanks) and a police officer (Audrey Tautou) hole up with Ian McKellen, an expert on the Priory Of Sion, a group responsible for protecting Christ's real human legacy. Unpacking a computerized rendering of Da Vinci's The Last Supper, McKellen talks (and talks and talks) about Christ's marriage to Mary Magdalene, who was pregnant at the time of His crucifixion and whose descendents live on to this day. What's more, the Church tarred this great woman as a prostitute and proceeded to flambé millions of freethinking women around the world. And on, and on… So tedious the con of man.