In 1989 this short film was submitted to the BBFC. It contains a fantasy scene in which the figure of St Teresa of Avila caresses the body of the crucified Christ and apparently has sex with him.
The BBFC, having taken legal advice, judged the film to be potentially liable to prosecution under the common law offence of blasphemous libel. Because cuts would have removed about half the work (which is only 19 minutes long) the only viable option was to refuse a classification. There was much debate in the press about whether or not the film was a serious experimental work and about whether the offence of blasphemy had any place in a modern society.
Nigel Wingrove, the film's director and distributor, appealed against the BBFC's rejection to the independent Video Appeals Committee. This Committee was established by the Video Recordings Act in 1984 to hear appeals from distributors who felt that the BBFC's decisions on their works were too restrictive.
After hearing evidence from both sides, including a defence of the film by film maker Derek Jarman, the Committee upheld the BBFC's original decision, being satisfied that a reasonable jury was likely to convict. Indeed, only 10 years previously, Gay News had been successfully prosecuted for blasphemy after publishing a poem by James Kirkup describing a Roman soldier's sexual fantasies about Christ.
The distributor then took his case to the European Court of Human Rights, who delivered their verdict in 1996. Although the Court did not consider whether or not the video itself was blasphemous (since that was a matter that could only be decided under UK law) it was asked to consider whether the existence of a law of blasphemy was consistent with the right of Freedom of Expression, guaranteed by Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights. In their conclusion they stated that: “Freedom of expression constitutes one of the essential foundations of a democratic society. As paragraph 2 of Article 10 expressly recognises, however, the exercise of that freedom carries with it duties and responsibilities. Amongst them, in the context of religious beliefs, may legitimately be included a duty to avoid as far as possible an expression that is, in regard to objects of veneration, gratuitously offensive to others and profanatory”.
In 2008, the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel were abolished by the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act.
In 2012, the film was resubmitted for classification and the BBFC considered the film in terms of its current Guidelines. With the abolition of the blasphemy law, the film was no longer likely to be considered illegal under any current piece of UK legislation. Nor was the film likely to be harmful to viewers under the terms of the Video Recordings Act. Although the Board recognised that the film retained the potential to offend some viewers, there were no longer any sustainable grounds to refuse a classification and Visions of Ecstasy was therefore classified 18 without cuts. To ensure that prospective viewers are fully aware of the content of the film, the BBFCinsight reads 'Contains nudity and sex involving religious images'.