For much of film history, what to show and say on screen has been a dilemma faced by a considerable number of directors, actors, and screenwriters. The arrival of television made the question of the lawfulness of visual and plot language even more complicated, which put on the shoulders of talent in front of and behind the camera, aa responsibility about the message that is spread and how it is done, and on censorship.
From the political conditions that put pressure on various issues and topics, to the moral vigilance based on the sensitivity of the masses, censorship has become an uncomfortable debate that rarely takes place in all its breadth. It is also a look that worries about the way in which we conceive the moral and intellectual freedom of the seventh art and its variants. From pure and simple propaganda, the perception of the mass message as a means of conditioning to the most personal opinion, the objective of cinema and television – their languages and variables – will often be the subject of a very harsh moral discussion.
Of course, it is not a current issue: in Europe and Asia, film production faced ideological weight for more than fifty years, the same thing that happened in North America with the controversial Hays Code, which weighed on all productions of the Mecca of the cinema to become an unavoidable element to understand the evolution of cinema in the West. For a good part of the political regimes, governments in office and political factions, the cinema and television is a space in dispute, a way of expressing public discussions and especially, a way of understanding cultural movements.
So it is not at all surprising that there is now a resurgence of on-screen language analysis through the great contemporary discussions. From inclusion, the representative as a means of diffusion, the promotion of minorities, to the vision of human relations in its totality, the cinematographic language carries a message load that is difficult to digest and analyze. Censorship is once again a source of controversy and especially when it is related in an uncomfortable way to specific issues that border on social and intellectual movements of considerable pre-eminence. What does the cinema say today? What message does it convey? Where is it headed?
An old problem with a new face
To understand such a thing, it is worth walking the path that led to the current climate of pressure on the cinematographic message. And in fact analyze it from its nuances. Because current censorship is not directly related to a regime, a political position or a set of laws (although it may be), but rather as a perception of what is politically correct or acceptable, in the midst of a revaluation of the empathy of the message and the speech. Which leads to looking for the most immediate antecedents. When did the cinema begin to be the subject of discussion due to its relationship with the great discussions of the time?
Perhaps one of the best known cases is that of director Peter Watkins. In 1965, the director received a project from the BBC in which he had to analyze the consequences on the effects – possible and random enough to be classified as science fiction – of a nuclear war in Great Britain. At that time, the fear of such a conflict was real and there was a good deal of discussion on the subject, including the central fact about how the country might react to a phenomenon for which little data and much speculation were available.
At the time, the effects of the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still up for debate – although the destructive power that had devastated both cities was obvious – so the premise on which Watkins should be based was closer to uchrony than to dystopia. The conditions for such a confrontation also bordered on an exalted global political climate.: the confrontation between the powers was more and more accentuated and after the assassination of JFK in 1963, the condition of the possibility that Russia or the USA would end up causing a large-scale conflagration was very close.
So Watkins developed a theory that would allow him to tell the possible event from the basics: the movie The War Game was a film in the form of a newscast that counted in apparent real time the hours before the great attack, as well as the final climate of what would be the ultimate destruction. The film used archival shots and the condition of realistic shots to create an atmosphere of verisimilitude, which ended up becoming a rare example of tell the story that hasn’t happened yet.
However, the film did not make it to air: the format, the power of the message and the terrifying implications – how to make clear Britain’s inability to deal with such a situation – horrified executives who had the opportunity to see the material prior to transmission. For Watkins it was a surprise: He had only produced a visual document with the resources at his disposal. And while the BBC production claimed that it was an “excessively horrifying” show that could “affect the morale of the nation,” the director concluded – quite wisely – that it was most likely a document that put uncovered not only the immense and dangerous proliferation of nuclear weapons, but also the political climate that existed and made a conflagration of such magnitude possible and a very close reality.
In the end, the film was shown, but outside of England, obtaining a resounding success – it was even nominated for an Oscar -. But that questioned the BBC’s decision on the possibility of its transmission. It was one of the first occasions in which the fact of indirect censorship was debated aloud, the one that comes from the weight of uncomfortable ideas and not from a law that directly prohibits the cinematographic or television debate of a subject. What was causing so much discomfort in The War Game?
In reality it was a combination of several things: after the assassination of JFK, world peace had more to do with delicate internal negotiations outside the reach of public opinion, than with real agreements that could sustain the idea of an arms control system of long-range. The instability and fragility of such a situation created a climate of paranoia that terrified a good part of the generation that grew up with the possibility of a nuclear conflict in tow, but the next that hoped that the possibility would be averted sooner or later.
Watkins analyzed the subject, held it as an impeccable premise, and ultimately ended up developing a perception of contemporary good and evil. Later, the British director would insist that the film “had made him understand the real risk of an era without guarantees.” Perhaps the same thing that BBC executives feared would happen to the public.
Cinema: the blasphemous as an emblem
In 1961, Luis Buñuel filmed what for years was considered the most controversial film in the history of Spain: Viridiana. It spent a good amount of time in the hands of the censors, in addition to being analyzed from all possible optics to allow its projection. The strong Francoist censorship tried to modify the ending, the montage in edition and even delayed the premiere in the hope of definitively influencing its content. However, Luis Buñuel was much more skilled than the regime’s censorship offices and with a series of small tricks and skill games, he managed to screen his film at Cannes before the censors did their thing: “We feared the worst if before its premiere in Cannes was seen by the Director General of Cinematography, ”said Pere Portabella, the producer of Viridiana al País de España, several years ago.
With its brutal and anti-clerical air, as well as a subversive subtext that could never have crossed the strict censorship of the time, the film became the symbol of a type of message cinema that still endures. It was not so much about what was shown but about what was suggested, what made the film stand out. turned into a true earthquake that shook the way Spain understood cinema until then.
Buñuel had created the ultimate work of his groundbreaking and inconoclastic language: the film was blasphemous – something that an article in L’Osservatore Romano highlighted – and ended up becoming a hint of a type of cinematic language that elaborated something more powerful. and strange: the possibility of subverting cinematographic language into something more elaborate. More than the argument, it was the weight of its background, and especially the particularity that caused discomfort in sensitive subjects. An idea that Buñuel had worked on and deepened until then, but without as much perfection as in Viridiana.
Something similar happened with Pasolini, who in 1975 created a worldwide scandal with Saló or the 120 days of Sodom. The film was doubly controversial: on the one hand it was an accurate analysis of fascist Italy, and on the other an exploration of the Marquis de Sade’s wildest fantasies. Both of these created a previously unseen perception of sex and political abuse that shook world cinema in a way few things had before. Already, the exaggerated, cruel and incendiary sexual scenes were so harsh as to provoke horror in the audience and censors.
But what most concerned conservative Italy – and much of Europe moreover – was the way Pasolini reflected on the continent’s culture, its hypocritical traits, and the underlying pain in politics as a form of control. Until then, few directors had created such affection and when the film was released, the commotion reached the very Holy See itself, which considered the play as “a blasphemy from the first scene” and unleashed a radical effect that included a court order to prevent its premiere, as well as two months in prison for producer Alberto Grimaldi.
The most curious thing is that Pasolini died a year before the scandal, which allowed the Church to accuse him of “endangering his immortal soul” because of the film.
Politics is the means
Of course, politics is still the main reason for censorship. However, the most curious are the cases that show that the rejection of certain content or symbolism does not come only from the authorities: from what suffered by Costa – Gavras (who after filming his controversial film Z in ’69 had to leave Greece in the midst of collective contempt), until the effect of La Patagonia rebelde (1974) by Héctor Olivera, a film that confronted the all-powerful Isabel Perón and caused the exile of part of its production team. Politics is a more than direct reason for film censorship and what is even more worrying, the confrontation between public opinion and proposals on screen.
A similar dilemma occurred in Russia with Sayat Nova (1961), by Serguei Paradjanov, who aroused suspicion of power due to its religious content and political subtext, which caused its director to end up in jail, tortured and finally suffering derision public. In the end, the censorship came not only from the authorities, but also from the general conception that the film was “dangerous” for showing religion as a desirable element. In the same way as Pasolini in Italy, censorship was a public weight that also sustained the politician.
Cinema and censorship: the current view
Oddly enough, the same censoring weight of public opinion is having similar effects today as it did in the past: HBO Max’s recent flinging with accusations of racism, the warnings that include much of Disney’s classic content. Plus, and in the end the direct criticism of situations of an ambiguous nature – like the complaint about the three fingers of the witches in The Witches, by Robert Zemeckis – make it very clear that the quality of censorship is not always a political instrument, but a a way to measure cultural temperature, sometimes as restrictive and dangerous as a law that can regulate content.
Is cinema threatened again by tacit public censorship? It is the big question that this atypical 2020 leaves behind.
The article Neither politics nor religion: censorship in cinema that comes from the spectator himself was published in Hipertextual.