Two films, which between them probably earned less in total in cinemas than “Top Gun Maverick” did in a single weekend in an IMAX screen, have nevertheless outperformed Tom Cruise’s career best film when it comes to newspaper headlines in the United Kingdom this past week. “Lady of Heaven” and “DASHCAM” were pulled by the big UK cinema chains and promptly ensured major media controversy (see story below).
So-called “muslim groups” – though more accurately characterised by others as intolerant islamists with an agenda – objected to the portrayal of the Prophet Muhammed’s daughter in “The Lady of Heaven.” Sunni muslims tend to object to any depiction of the Prophet and his family, while Shia muslims take a more relaxed approach. Hence why Iranan epic “Muhammad: The Messenger of God” (2015) was a hit in its native territory but led to a fatwa declared on the film’s director Majid Majidi and music composer A.R. Rahman – though not the cinematographer Vittorio Storaro.
Cineworld did not wish to get into the finer cine-theological differences between Sunni and Shia attitudes towards celluloid religious epics, but pulled the film, as did Showcase and some Vue cinemas. The same week Vue had to defend itself against accusations of ‘cancelling’ the low budget horror film “DASHCAM.” In both cases it could be argued that there was little commercial incentive for playing the films in the first place, even if it meant upsetting enraged fanatics (and that’s just the rabbid horror fans!).
Cineworld and other UK cinemas were absolutely right to pull “Lady of Heaven” and we applaud them for putting the safety of their staff and patrons above all. It is true that the UK does not have a blasphemy law, so it was only delicate sensibilities that were violated. UK has been and remains a generally tolerant nation when it comes to big screen treatment of religions, their gods and followers.
“I started off by saying that this is such a tenth-rate film that I don’t believe that it would disturb anybody’s faith,” noted Christian Malcolm Muggeridge said in a BBC TV discussion about blasphemy with Python’s John Cleese and Michael Palin in 1979. Also weighing in against “Life of Brian” was the Bishop of Southwark. In the end the film was only banned in Norway and New Zealand. Since “The Last Temptation of Christ,” protestants and catholics have been united in their general lack of interest in banning films on the big screen, or even putting up much of an objection to films such as “Benedetta.”
Yet the fear of cancel culture hangs over the discussion and Vue is still smarting from the controversy of pulling “Blue Story” in 2020, though that too was the right call, given that hooligans with weapons were coming to screenings. But next time it might not be religious or race grounds for inflaming a thin skinned group’s sensibilities by simply programming a film in your local cinema.
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