This hallucinatory, religious psycho-sexual nightmare classic from 1971 is one of the most infamous movies in cinema. You may or may not agree with the movie's messages, but it cannot be denied that this movie is a landmark in film history. What makes it so important, and what does it say about censorship? Let's look at a few points.
It's based on a true story
In 1632, in the French town of Loudun, there was a Catholic priest named Urbain Grandier who had a reputation for having lots of sex with the town's women. A group of nuns in the town accused Grandier of sending demons to visit them, possess them, and cause them to perform perverted acts. Grandier was found guilty and burned at the stake.
In order to fully understand the movie, you need to be familiar with the battles between Catholics and Protestants in 17th-century France, the rise of the Catholic church, and the contemporary bonds between church and state.
The way the movie was handled
In 1971, Warner Bros. produced a movie of the story. But they were horrified at the final result because of the blatant sacrilegious mixture of sex, violence, politics, and religion. It was slammed with an X-rating and immediately banned in many countries. It was heavily edited before its release, and the offensive footage was buried for 40 years.
Eventually the cut footage was found, and replaced into one copy of actual film that randomly pops up around the world to be seen as an "educational experience." But Warner Bros. still refuses to release the uncensored version on DVD. As of this writing, they even refuse to release the censored version in America (I was lucky enough to get a limited international release of a semi-uncensored version a few years ago).
Director Guillermo del Toro even came out to slam Warner Bros. for their gutless treatment of the film.
While it has some characteristics of an exploitation horror film, it's really not. This is a real movie — a serious work of art — not made just for shock purposes
The film was directed by Ken Russell who is famous for directing Tommy, Altered States, and was nominated for an Academy Award for Women in Love. It stars Vanessa Redgrave as Sister Jeanne — a hunchbacked, sexually-repressed nun. She's won 42 awards for her acting on stage and screen. Oliver Reed plays Grandier. He was a very well-respected British actor who made almost 100 movies. Combined with sets designed by Derek Jarman, the result is a stunningly gorgeous philosophical-theological dirty bomb that throws radioactive shrapnel through the complex tapestry of life.
The style of the movie is as frenzied as the subject matter
Russell is not the most polished director — some of the scenes are kind of clunky. But nobody commits to an idea with more passion than Russell, and he had the guts to make very incendiary commentary about Christianity, especially Catholicism.
As the hysteria of the nuns and the town increases, the movie itself becomes more and more crazed and orgiastic. The exorcism scene and the possession scenes are intense and bizarre; I don't think anyone has the guts to make this movie today.
It's an important contribution to philosophical and political topics
The movie takes on such ideas as the meaning of life, the meaning of love, and the nature of humanity. Deep thoughts are tossed out almost haphazardly in conversations, and you don't get the time to really think about it before something else happens. For example, there's a scene in which Grandier basically admits he wants to destroy himself through his own corruption so that he can meet God. It's kind of mind-blowing. But then the scene changes, and new topics are brought up, so you have to put your mind back in to keep watching the movie.
This movie needs to be seen multiple times in order to really appreciate the genius.
It's an important contribution to the examination of human nature
This is a bit of an oversimplification, but the movie basically says there are three types of people in the world:
1. Simple, dumb people that just believe what they are told.
2. People who aren't dumb but are psychologically unstable and aren't quite able to handle the world as it really is.
3. People who desire power and who use the psychologically unstable people to help manipulate the simple people.
It also asks the question, can hypocrites truly reform, or is repentance just a deeper layer of hypocrisy?
It's an important contribution to psychological topics
Much of the movie focuses on the convent of nuns, who did not join the convent willingly, but because they were dumped there by their families for various reasons. The movie makes the point that the monastic, secluded nature of the convent is incompatible with normal human desires. Repressing such desires, or condemning them as evil, does more damage to the person than just acting on your natural impulses. The movie takes the stand that devout religious belief doesn't help people — it destroys them.
It's an important contribution to theological topics
The more religious you are, or the more religious your upbringing, the more shocking the movie is. Non-religious people may find the movie interesting, or philosophically compelling, but it won't be life-changing. Ken Russell knows Catholicism, and if you understand the religious traditions and iconography used in the movie, you can appreciate just how transgressive this movie is.
Russell uses religion against itself. He perverts the sacred in order to say that nothing is sacred; everything is corrupt or able to be corrupted. He exposes the decay, superstition, and hypocrisy that make up the foundation of organized religion. He illustrates that religion is politics, and politics uses religion to get what it wants. It's a truly unholy union.
The movie exposes the true nature of censorship
There are plenty of movies out there that have more explicit violence and sex than this one. This movie scared the world because of the ideas. When works of art are truly censored or buried, it's not because of gore or sex. It's because the art may plant seeds of doubt or rage against whoever is in power. Ideas are dangerous, and they must be carefully guarded before they infect other people.
Ken Russell is one of the few filmmakers that dared to directly spread "dangerous ideas." He was so successful at making his point, that almost nobody has been exposed to those ideas.