Celestial orgasm that went too far
Ros Wynne-Jones meets the film director who is challenging Britain's blasphemy laws
Sunday 24 March 1996
Eerily-lit in his implausibly Gothic office by the flickering red lights of Soho, the maker of Visions of Ecstasy is contemplating next Wednesday's showdown when Geoffrey Robertson QC will argue that the UK's blasphemy laws, by denying Wingrove freedom of expression, are an infringement of human rights.
The film, about St Teresa of Avila and her well-documented unsaintly visions of Christ, was refused a certificate by the British Board of Film Classification in 1987 on the grounds of being blasphemous, and subsequently failed to convince the UK's video appeals committee it deserved an 18 certificate.
A scene deemed particularly offensive has St Teresa fantasising about lying on top of a dead Christ, still nailed to the cross, and bringing him back to life with her caresses. Christ, with heaving bosom, begins to respond to her attentions, clasping her hands with his bloodied palms and expelling a solitary tear. Wingrove believes this scene allegorises St Teresa's sexualised relationship with Christ through "celestial orgasm", but at this tender moment the BBFC apparently decided enough was enough.
Visions has invoked only the third blasphemy case this century. The last was in 1977 when the late Denis Lemon, editor and publisher of Gay News, was prosecuted and convicted for printing James Kirkup's poem, The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name, which used homosexual imagery to convey the poet's relationship to God.
The court heard that "blasphemous libel is committed if there is published any writing concerning God or Christ, the Christian religion, the Bible, or some sacred subject, using words which are scurrilous, abusive or offensive and which tend to vilify the Christian religion [and therefore lead to a breach of the peace]".
The other case involved a Mr JW Gott, sentenced to nine months' imprisonment with hard labour in 1921 for publishing a pamphlet entitled Rib Ticklers or Questions for Parsons.
Visions of Ecstasy packs into its 18 minutes the essential elements of a succesful skin flick with added religious outrage: sex with Christ; blood dripping from a stigmata wound self-inflicted with a nail; and lesbian sex between St Teresa and her alter ego.
By the end, the 16th-century Spanish Carmelite nun's hood is drenched with her blood, what appears to be Christ's scar tissue, communion wine, and other unmentionable fluids.
"I knew I might have trouble getting the 18 certificate because of the sex," said Wingrove. "But I never thought for one minute it would be considered blasphemous. If I had set out to make a blasphemous film I would have gone way over the line, but that was never my intention."
Martin Eden, of the Evangelical Alliance, an umbrella group for evangelical Christians in the UK, finds Mr Wingrove's intentions irrelevant. "A contemptuous reviling of God and Jesus is to revile the core relationship in a Christian's life. I would consider this a form of persecution."
Mr Eden says he is not a "right-wing, moral-majority Christian", but is nevertheless deeply offended by the themes of Visions of Ecstasy. "There is a chasm in modern society, where on the one side you have a post-modern view in which there are no meta-narratives and the Bible is just a book, and on the other side there are people like me," he says. "To me there is such a thing as truth. Violating St Teresa violates my sense of truth and in doing so, violates my conscience."
Gathering pace in the wake of the Salman Rushdie affair, however, is the opposite view: that the blasphemy law is an archaic and anachronistic piece of legislation in a multi-cultural society. Although Tony Benn's 1989 Bill to abolish the blasphemy law failed to reach a second reading, it was because politicians were too timid to rock the boat, says Robertson.
British campaigners point out that civilised society has collapsed neither in America, which protects free speech under the first amendment, nor in France, Austria, Sweden, Denmark and Norway, which all have abolished blasphemy laws. Frances de Souza, of the campaign group Article 19 and a friend of Rushdie's, sums up the main argument against the law "It only protects the official religion and, as such, is discriminatory." For this reason the Commission for Racial Equality wants to see the blasphemy law broadened to cover all religions.
Article 19 , however, wants to see the law abolished. "Otherwise, the law will have to start defining religion," says de Souza. "That will be impossible and perhaps dangerous."
Robertson calls the law a hypocrisy. "When it came to Rushdie, the Government said Iran's laws were unsupportable," he says. "Yet they continue to support a blasphemy law in this country."
An unexpected supporter of the anti-censorship lobby is the former Bishop of Durham, Dr David Jenkins, who dedicated his retiring speech to attacking Britain's blasphemy laws. "An all-powerful God can take care of himself," he says. "He doesn't need legislation to do it for him."
Wingrove himself admits his film is not a great work of art - one of his legal team joked that it may be a "blasphemy against artistic expression". Nor is it likely to reach a mass market, even if granted a certificate.
In 1989, when the case went to the video appeals committee, three other cases made headlines: The Last Temptation of Christ, by Hollywood director Martin Scorsese; Madonna's music video to Like A Prayer; and the fatwa against Salman Rushdie.
"Had I been Fellini, the film world would have leapt to my defence, but there was no murmur of support from the British Film Institute," says Wingrove. "No one saw that it is the principle, not the value of the thing, that matters."
Censorship campaigners scent a conspiracy: that after granting The Last Temptation a certificate, the BBFC had to show it could be tough on blasphemy and therefore picked a tiny experimental film-maker without influential friends which it could ban without affecting the coffers of the British film industry.
The Government is taking Wednesday's case seriously, and has dispatched three QCs and Solicitor General Sir Derek Spencer to Strasbourg to defend the realm. Back home, one Daily Mail writer has just stopped short of calling for a Christian fatwa against Wingrove. The film-maker himself confesses to being bemused by the way his "little film" has ended up at the core of an historic debate. Meanwhile, he has three new films lined up to try the patience of the BBFC: Bare Behind Bars, Sadomania and Demoniac. But he swears to God there's not a hint of blasphemy in any of them.
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