The most shocking of films are always those that dare to explore controversial territory, and there seems to be nothing more controversial than religious fundamentalism. When depicted as extremism, religious subjects are often portrayed as misinterpreting religious texts, manipulating religious texts, or downright creating texts that are to be held by a certain group as religious in their holiness (the latter of which is most descriptive of cult practice). Often, such films are deemed controversial by their very nature as they question the rights and motives of many prominent religions.
The movies discussed on this list depict particularly brutal displays of religious severity, including cult practice, and are simply shocking in what they are willing to say and show. For those that are based on true stories, they are especially difficult because they expose truths that many would prefer not to confront.
This film follows the story of an eight year old girl, who is married off to an old man, who dies shortly after the wedding. According to Hindi law, the girl is brought to live out the rest of her life in a widow’s house, where she must denounce all pleasures. Her head is shaved and her clothes are taken so she is draped only in the drab clothing of widows. Unable to understand her circumstances, the girl begins acting out and eventually, forms a bond with the one other widow who is not elderly. This teenage widow, though, has her own problems to deal with – such as how she is being prostituted out by the widow in charge in order to afford food for the house. During the on-location shooting of Water, fundamentalist groups fought against the production hard enough to have it violently shut down by authorities. The film was subsequently shot in Sri Lanka. The reason fundamentalists are so enraged about the film is because it suggests that the sacred Hindi texts are being used as a guise for the society to mistreat women and strip them of their right to be full citizens, to the benefit of men who remain rich and powerful by the same laws.
7. The Magdalene Sisters
Passed off as a Catholic space for “fallen women and girls”, the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland represent what Prime Minister, Enda Kenny calls a “harsh and uncompromising Ireland.” Of course, this statement makes the issue seem old and far removed from today’s Irish society, but many of these laundries were in operation until as recent as 1996. The asylums, run by individual orders of the Roman Catholic Church, were the subject of the 2002 film, which aimed at exposing the terrible and violent living conditions these young women were subjected to. The film was made, according to director Peter Mullan, because no one had yet bothered to apologize or give retribution for these girls’ sufferings. In fact, The Guardian has reported that according to former Magdalene inmate Mary-Jo McDonagh, the reality of the Magdalene Asylums was much worse than depicted in the film. Prime Minister Kenny has since apologized to the Laundry survivors, but the women were dissatisfied with the apology, which still denied much of the atrocities.
Although this film is not explicitly dealing with a specific religion, the basis of the story is formed on the idea that human contentment can only be achieved through reaching the spiritual state of martyrdom. Within the context of the film, martyrdom can only be achieved by a woman, and is the moment in which all pain and suffering subsides as you see “the light”. In order to learn more about this, and thus gain sufficient evidence of the existence of such purity, a dedicated organization leads a “study”. The study consists of kidnapping young girls and torturing them, condemning them to brutal violences, until they (hopefully) become martyrs. This French film is so explicit, belonging specifically to the cinematic tendency known as the New French Extremity, that it is widely regarded as difficult to watch. The film’s producers have been battling against the French government who gave the film an 18+ rating. The Union of Film Journalists have also considered the rating to be of a threatening level of censorship.
5. Martha Marcy May Marlene
Essentially dealing with the aftermath of severe exposure to “religious fundamentalism”, this film follows Martha, after her escape from an abusive cult. As she tries to re-adapt to her family, she is burdened by trauma, delusions and paranoia. The film therefore speaks to the challenges of getting your life back from a cult. While a cult does not necessarily have to be a religious group, the process by which a cult brainwashes an individual to hold certain beliefs about the world and life, and the patterns by which cult-members live their day to day life, closely mimics that of religious extremism. Use of the word cult has been extremely controversial, and one of the biggest issues is that classifying is made difficult by the isolation of the community, it is often impossible to tell whether or not the operation can be defined as cult-like. The term is also associated with negative connotations such as abuse.
4. Mouth To Mouth
Another film that deals with the nature of cults, this one follows a young girl who watches as her group of friends slowly turns into a dangerous cult. S.P.A.R.K., Street People Armed with Radical Knowledge, is appealing to Sherry when she first comes across the charming leader, Harry. But as time goes on, she begins to notice Harry changing, becoming possessive and violent. Soon, he enforces rules on the group, such as abstinence, shaved heads – his belief system becomes dependent wholly on how he wants the group to function. His control over everyone worries Sherry, but running away becomes more difficult when her own mother, who she initially called for help, winds up joining the crew. The film examines how brainwashing and the tactics of religious extremism can be used to take control over a group of impressionable minds.
3. The Exorcism of Emily Rose
This film is loosely based on the true story of Annaliese Michel, a teenager who died of complications during a ten-month period of exorcisms. The rituals were performed on the girl a total of 67 times, but the “symptoms” of demonic depression have been diagnosed as epileptic seizures and a host of mental disorders from which the girl had been suffering for some time. All those involved were prosecuted, and the film is constructed as a courtroom drama, as it accounts for the jury (and viewers) the sad tale. In this particular case the exorcism was performed under the Roman Catholic practice, but forms of demon expulsion exist all over the world through various religious sectors. In Catholicism, such acts were performed by priests to rid people who were possessed by the Devil and/or demons. When Annaliese underwent the ritual, it had been over 400 years since the Church has ceased its employment, but it has been commonly done without the condoning of the Church ever since. In its use of the trial setting, the film proceeds to criticize the Church’s decision to disregard modern-medicine.
2. An American Crime
This film is based on the true story of a 16 year old girl, Sylvia Likens, who was subjected to merciless violence and eventually murdered in the home she was boarding at, run by Gertrude Banizewski. Mother of seven, Gertrude, who eventually claimed to be on drugs throughout the entire experience, took in Sylvia and her sister for a monthly fee from their parents. During this time, she became convinced that Sylvia was a “sinner”. She began accusing her of prostitution and giving her sermons about the filthiness of sexuality and women’s sexuality in particular. Following the strict household rules, Sylvia regularly attended church with the Banizewski’s but Gertrude remained convinced that she needed to be punished. She ordered her children to beat Sylvia, and eventually had neighbourhood kids participate in the torture. Sylvia was confined in the basement and after two months of being preached to and mercilessly abused, she succumbed to her injuries and died.
1. Red State
Met with protests from religious groups, Kevin Smith’s film Red State is all about the danger of religious extremism. In it, a trio of teen boys are lured by the promise of sex to a trailer park, located a couple towns away from home. Once there, they are drugged and wake up to find themselves being held captive in the infamous Five Points Church. The members (one family led by the Father) are widely regarded as religious-nuts with cult-like behaviors and have been very public about “God’s” intolerance for homosexuality. They are even suspected of having killed for their beliefs. As it turns out, the congregation has decided that the boys must pay for their sinful ways. The film is uncomfortably violent and with loads of well-placed dialogue, it insists upon its message that religious fundamentalism fuels hate.