Easter week release for banned nun-meets-Jesus film
Visions of Ecstasy, only film ever banned on blasphemy grounds, finally released – but why in Holy Week, asks MP
A FILM that depicts a nun caressing Jesus Christ on the cross, and which remains the only film ever to be banned in Britain on grounds of blasphemy, goes on sale as a DVD today, 23 years after it was made. The fact that it is finally being made available to the public in Holy Week has upset at least one Conservative MP, who called the timing "provocative".
The film is Visions of Ecstasy, a low-budget production, only 18 minutes long, made by Nigel Wingrove in 1989.
It is based on the writings of the 16th Century Spanish nun and mystic, St Teresa of Avila, who had visions of Christ that continued over a two-year period. Wingrove's interpretation of these visions involves sexual scenes between St Teresa and another woman, who represents her psyche. The nun is also shown lying on top of Christ and caressing him as he remains nailed to the cross.
James Ferman, the then chairman of the British Board of Film Censors (the body that must pass all films for release in the UK), ruled that the sexual scenes would upset Christians and might make the film liable to prosecution under Britain's blasphemous libel law.
Backed by novelist Salman Rushdie, film-maker Derek Jarman and musician Steve Severin (the Siouxsie and the Banshees bassist who wrote the soundtrack for Visions of Ecstasy), who claimed it was unwarranted censorship, Wingrove went to the European Court of Human Rights in 1996 to argue that the ban violated his freedom of expression.
But in what the Daily Mail calls a "rare victory" for the British government in Strasbourg, the court backed Ferman's decision, ruling that Britain's blasphemy laws were consistent with Europe's human rights convention.
Wingrove's breakthrough finally came in 2008 when the UK's blasphemy laws were abolished under the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act, which meant the film censor no longer needed to consider the laws in reaching his judgment. As a result, when Wingrove resubmitted the film last December, the censor cleared it with an X-certificate.
Delays in producing an accompanying booklet explaining its history meant that the film's release, set for last month, is only happening today.
Tory MP David Burrowes, a member of Christians in Parliament, told The Sunday Telegraph: "The law may have changed in the last 20 years, but the potential for this film to offend has not and it is a shame that a film like this is being released at such a time. The timing seems particularly provocative."
Wingrove says: "At the time, blasphemy was a very big issue and I think the film was caught up in it. But looked at now, it is very tame and of its time. The imagery is no different from what you see in many films and pop videos today."
The film-maker maintains that he never intended to "hurt or mock" and that he wasn't trying to be "over the top". On the other hand, asked in 2010 to describe his latest film, he apparently told the Dangerous Minds blog it was "a sci-fi nunsploitation film called Sisters of Armageddon - think Planet of the Apes meets The Nun's Story with a sprinkling of The Gestapo's Last Orgy and a soupçon of Mad Max."