SCHOOL HOLY OF THE HOLY BEAST got the most votes on the poll by far. I picked it because I thought it'd be an ironic film to cover; turns out part of it actually takes place on Christmas! It's a Japanese exploitation film from the 70's that falls into the Nunsploitation category. In fact, it's one of the more noteworthy examples of the strange sub-genre of exploitation cinema. "Nunsploitation", for those of you who aren't familiar, pretty much speaks for itself. These movies feature nuns being exploited, obviously, but these films also exploit the Catholic church in general. That said, SCHOOL OF THE HOLY BEAST is like a giant middle finger to the Catholic church, but I'll get to that later.
The lead character, a stunning young woman named Maya Takigawa (Yumi Takigawa), becomes a nun and basically infiltrates a convent (or "abbey" as its called in the film) with the intention of finding out what happened to her mother who apparently died behind the convent's walls many years ago. Once in the convent, she's initiated and briefed by her superiors, and the rules seem pretty simple enough to follow: don't fuck, kill, or steal, or else you'll be punished.
Right away, SCHOOL OF THE HOLY BEAST questions the logic behind Catholicism and Christianity, neither of which are widely practiced religions in Japan. Essentially, both religions (mostly Catholicism) are made a mockery of in a way that's far from subtle. One of the young nuns questions the theory of immaculate conception and points out to one of her superiors that it doesn't make much sense, which, regardless of your religious beliefs, is true; I'm sure we're all mature enough to know that women just don't randomly get pregnant without having sex unless she cannonballs into a swimming pool full of semen or something. Frustrated, the nun's superior replies with something along the lines of "That's just the way it is and you have to accept it." We as viewers quickly find out that most of the young nuns don't give a shit about religion and are just there because they're troublemakers. Needless to say, Maya fits in just fine, and the disrespectful behavior towards the elder nuns is something that continues. It should be said, though, that the behavior of the younger nuns isn't met without discipline, and this is where we get the numerous scenes of the young women being exploited. But, for the most part, the young women just exploit themselves.
The film is full of eroticism and great pay-offs if you're one of those people who watches SCHOOL OF THE HOLY BEAST to see it live up to its reputation. Topless nuns being forced to whip each other, masturbation and lesbian sex with religious iconography present, so on and so forth. The things you'll see in this movie aren't uncommon to other films of its ilk, but the Nunsploitation conventions are cranked up to eleven more often than not. Basically, tons of taboo imagery - so much, in fact, that the film almost borders on comedic at times because of how over the top it goes.
THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST as a film and focus on its narrative and whether or not it succeeds at what it's trying to do.
It doesn't matter if you're religious or not; I'm sure you all know who Jesus Christ is, yeah? OK, good. The title PASSION OF THE CHRIST is based on the "Passion of Jesus", which, in Christian lore, refers to the final hours of Jesus leading up to his crucifixion. Looking at the film from an unbiased perspective, it basically portrays Jesus as a delusional cult leader who's unmercifully punished by the Jews for claiming to be the Son of God, until a "twist ending" reveals that perhaps his prophecies were right all along. The film begins with Jesus being betrayed by one of his followers, Judas, who gives him the kiss of death and turns him over to some Vlad the Impaler-looking dudes in exchange for money. Jesus is then brutally beaten to the point of near-death over and over again and passed around by the Jews who had him apprehended in the first place, and his fate is ultimately decided by the people, most of whom want him dead. From a storytelling standpoint, it's all a bit convoluted but easy enough to follow along.
A majority of PASSION OF THE CHRIST essentially plays out like the Salem Witch Trials in the way that Jesus is accused and judged by those around him. There's an interesting balance between hope and hopelessness throughout the film as well. The hopelessness comes from Christ's situation; anyone who stands up for him is shunned, and the followers who stick with him until the end (his mother Mary, the prostitute Mary Magdalen, and John) have to keep their distance and simply observe unless they want to join him. The feeling of hope comes from Jesus refusing to back down and betray what he believes in (that he's the "Chosen One" and will carry out God's plan), even if it means experiencing the worst physical pain imaginable.
Again, religious beliefs or lack thereof aside, PASSION OF THE CHRIST is pretty amazing as a piece of cinema. A lot of people - critics and general audience members alike - felt that the film's extreme violence overshadowed everything else about it upon its release. I agree with this to an extent; not because I feel the violence takes away from the film, but rather because it's what everyone focuses on when talking about it. Though brutal and hard to watch at times, I'm fine with the violence overall. The thing is, this is a very well-made film. I initially saw PASSION OF THE CHRIST on the big screen and walked out of the theater absolutely stunned by what I'd just seen. There were more than a couple of awkward moments of silence between myself and the friend of mine who I saw it with on the drive home. Watching it now, though, and knowing what to expect in terms of the violence, "the gore", and how emotionally moving it is, I'm able to appreciate it as a quality piece of cinema. In my opinion, it's one of the most beautifully shot films of the 21st century thus far that I've seen, and the score by John Debney is about as perfect as it gets.
What actor Jim Caviezel went through while making this movie is the stuff of legend at this point. Apparently he was struck by lightning more than once during production, which is both ironic and bizarre. Even though he's just being beaten, expressing pain, and falling down for most of the film, he turns in an amazing performance along with pretty much the rest of the cast, especially Maia Morgenstern and Monica Bellucci, who play Mary and Magdalen respectively. There's something about Caviezel that makes him inherently sympathetic in this film, and for me it comes down to his face, his eyes, and how he carries himself. And I can only imagine how uncomfortable it was for him to shoot the torture scenes. Despite how many safety precautions were taken and how much of what we see is "Hollywood magic", it had to take a toll on him emotionally.
Regardless of what you do or don't believe in, it's hard not to be moved by the end of this film. If you've seen PASSION OF THE CHRIST and you can say that you walked away from it the same as before you saw it, you're either lying or you went into the movie with strong opinions. The effect of the final moments of the film has nothing to do with its message, what it's trying to say, or whether or not it's all just a bunch of religious propaganda; its effect lies in the fact that you just watched a grown man being harshly punished for his beliefs while his loved ones helplessly had to witness the entire thing.