|Flavia the Heretic , 1974. Directed by Gianfranco
Mingozzi. Florinda Bolkan, Maria Casares, Anthony Higgins, Claudio Cassinelli.
Synopsis: It's the beginning of the 15th century. Flavia Gaetani has become an "inconvenient" woman to her household, so her father does what any father of an "inconvenient woman" would do: he has her consigned to a convent. At the convent, Flavia stews in her resentment. Even after years of confinement, she asks herself: "Why? Why is God a man. The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost all men. Each of the 12 apostles. All 12 males." Her only friend at the convent is the Jewish scholar, Abraham, who manages to infuriate Flavia even further when he tells the story of Lilith, the first woman, who God made out of dung. Compounding her fury is the treatment of the mad followers of the Tarantula cult, who are tortured to death for their transgressions. After seeing a young woman raped in a pig sty, Flavia has had enough. She convinces Abraham to run from the convent with her, though this adventure is short-lived. She is returned to the convent and whipped. Afterwards, she falls under the spell of Sister Agatha, an older nun with radical notions about the place of women in society. And then another opportunity for escape presents itself when a force of Moslem invaders land. Flavia falls in with their leader and convinces him to follow her on a campaign of vengeance. The convent, her father, everyone who wronged her falls to the sword, or worse. But the Moslems aren't about to blindly follow a woman. Soon Flavia discovers that her saviors are just another kind of prison...
Nunsploitation: The "Nunsploitation" film, like the Women In Prison film and the Concentration Camp Exploitation film, is a genre that seems specifically designed to offend just about every sensibility. Like those other two genres, even when the film involved aspires to something approaching art (as Flavia the Heretic does), there is something inherent in the genre that sabotages the attempt. The presence of the genre's signifiers cannot be explained away with arty aspirations. A nude whipping, as one critic once said of Just Jaekin's film version of The Story of O, is STILL a nude whipping no matter how much Vaseline you smear on the lens. One can argue that the Nunsploitation film is intended to skewer the hypocrisy of the Catholic church or that there is a feminist bent to the shenanigans behind convent walls, but these arguments ring false when one sees the fruits of the exploitation impulse on the screen. This is of particular relevance to Flavia, because the film has aspirations that are undone by its violence.
Feminist Avenger: Flavia is a stand-in for victims of the patriarchy. She has a list of grievance a mile long. The film tips its hand towards the end when, like Joan of Arc, she dons a suit of armor in order to take her wrongs back to their source. The film is pessimistic about this impulse, of course. When the film turns its "meet the new boss/same as the old boss" turn in the end--an inevitable development for a story set somewhere around 1400 AD--the retribution that is visited upon Flavia in the end seems almost like the patriarchy getting some of its own back for the entertainment of a patriarchal audience. On the other hand, this film has a true exploitation instinct for this sort of thing, because when Flavia visibly gets off on watching the castration of a horse, I'm sure it's a bone thrown to hardcore feminists. In any event, the film has more than JUST exploitation on its mind, even if its aspiration to significance in the struggle of women is exploitation of a kind itself.
Craft: As an example of film craft, Flavia has fine formal qualities. Alfio Contini's cinematography is elegant, the costumes and locations are evocative of the period, and Nicola Piovani's score is superb. Florinda Bolkan is certainly a capable actress in the lead. One could mistake this for an art film, were it not for the film's nastier elements. Like some kinds of art films, it has a tendency towards weirdness for its own sake during Flavia's dream sequence near the end of the film (the meaning of the shot of a naked nun inside of a beef carcass escapes me). It also has the unfortunate tendency among both art films AND exploitation films to indulge in tedious longeurs where nothing much happens.
All of which leaves us with a film that's arguably the most artful, the most ambitious nunsploitation film ever made. But it's STILL a nunsploitation film, and one that tempers the base "pleasures" of the form with a seriousness that makes them rather more unpleasant than they might ordinarily be.
Take that however you like.