In this ongoing series, Sam Inglis casts a retrospective look on films that were banned from exhibition by the British censor.
Usually, for a series like this, there is a limited set of issues to cover. Films are generally supressed, cut or outright banned for reasons of sex, violence or a combination of the two. Not so Nigel Wingrove’s nunsploitation short Visions of Ecstasy, which is the only film to have been banned in the UK for blasphemy.
The film depicts St Teresa of Avila – a real life figure who lived from 1515-1587 and apparently became one of the foremost writers in the church on mental prayer. Wingrove appears to have drawn heavily on the idea of what Teresa framed as the fourth and final level of her mental devotions to God, the devotion of ecstasy. In this stage she believed that one’s consciousness, sensory faculties, memory and imagination could temporarily leave the body and become fully absorbed in God.
Wingrove reframes this religious ecstasy (which some modern scientists have speculated suggests temporal lobe epilepsy) as sexual ecstasy, first through a sequence of Teresa (Louise Downie) giving herself stigmata and, at the base of a crucifix, rubbing the blood over herself. In later intercut sequences Teresa has visions of her own psyche (Elisha Scott) making love to her, and herself making love to the crucified Christ (Dan Fox). This could be said to draw on visions Teresa had for two years from 1559 of Christ (invisibly) presenting himself in bodily form and from a piece of writing on of a seraph who appeared to Teresa and drove the point of a fiery lance repeatedly into her heart “The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it…” These are all interesting ideas, but none of them is in the film; rather they exist around the film, and can be found and interpreted from reading about Teresa.
In many ways it’s not difficult to see why this would be controversial; Wingrove is indulging in sexual imagery both hetero and lesbian in a way that it’s easy to imagine the Christian right being disapproving of even without the invocations of messianic and saintly figures. On the other hand, it’s tough to be particularly offended when you watch the film which, at the end of the day, is little more than 18 minutes of self-serious, if prettily shot, writhing. The overwhelming sense I got was a feeling of now having a bit too much information of what Nigel Wingrove is into.
The censorship history of the film is much more interesting than the work itself. The film was submitted to the BBFC in 1989 and, having taken legal advice, the board thought that the film could be liable to prosecution under the law against blasphemous libel, which could be brought to bear against “publication of material which exposes the Christian religion to scurrility, vilification, ridicule, and contempt, with material that must have the tendency to shock and outrage the feelings of Christians”. It’s easy to see why the board, having arrived at this opinion, would simply refuse classification: the fantasy sequence of Teresa carressing and having sex with Christ is roughly a third of the film and would have to be totally excised. It’s ironic, given that in terms of its sexuality this is by far the mildest part of the film, the only section in which no nudity is seen. Whatever else you can say about the film, Wingrove seems clear in this segment that he’s depicting this encounter as a metaphor for Teresa’s feelings of closeness to God and religious ecstasy. It is also possible that cuts would have been required to the first segment of the film (even without the blasphemy issues, the BBFC were never keen on the depiction of blood on breasts), as their case study notes that “cuts would have removed about half the work”.
The next port of call for the film was the Video Appeals Committee, where Derek Jarman spoke on behalf of Wingrove and his film, but the BBFC’s decision was upheld, with much weight given to the relatively recent (10 years previously) conviction of Gay News under blasphemy law for publishing a poem about a Roman soldier’s sexual fantasies about Christ. The final appeal was to the European Court of Human Rights in 1996, considering not the film itself but whether a blasphemy law was consistent with freedom of expression as a right. Wingrove lost, with the ECHR saying “Freedom of expression constitutes one of the essential foundations of a democratic society. As paragraph 2 of Article 10 expressly recognises, however, the exercise of that freedom carries with it duties and responsibilities. Amongst them, in the context of religious beliefs, may legitimately be included a duty to avoid as far as possible an expression that is, in regard to objects of veneration, gratuitously offensive to others and profanatory”.
After this, progress for Visions of Ecstasy only came when the law changed in 2008, with blasphemy and blasphemous libel laws being repealed. This having happened, and the regime at the BBFC having liberalised over the years, the film was passed uncut when it came back to the board in 2012.
I don’t think Visions of Ecstasy is an especially good film, but it’s an important one in the history of UK film censorship and Wingrove has to be admired for fighting against that censorship. He goes into much more detail on his personal journey with Visions of Ecstasy and his other films in a 36 page booklet essay for the film’s DVD release which also includes an earlier short, Axel and his feature, Sacred Flesh. Despite what I’ve said about the film, is recommended if you have an interest in the history of the BBFC and banned cinema.