Ingrid Bergman, Deborah Kerr, Audrey Hepburn, and Julie Andrews each played nuns in some of Hollywood's most beloved classics--but those aren't the ones we're here to talk about. Nor are we going to pay tribute to such late-'60s exotica as Ida Lupino's The Trouble with Angels (even though it's my favorite nun movie) and its sequel, Where Angels Go--Trouble Follows! or even the one with Mary Tyler Moore as a nun opposite Elvis, Change of Habit.
No. We're here to survey a group of low-budget European films of the '70s and '80s that make up a minor category sometimes known among video collectors as "nunsploitation" (an unfortunate term which I'll use only once more in this article). That is, softcore sex films set in convents populated by mischievous lesbian nuns, innocent nuns who get into trouble, and evil, power-mad nuns.
Why do these films exist? What needs called them into being? You don't have to be Kate Millett, Luce Irigaray, or the Marquis de Sade to figure out that nun pornography is about as textbook a vehicle as could be devised for men to express their love/hate ambivalence toward women. The lesbian scenes that are as obligatory in nun movies as I assume they are in real-life convents crystallize this ambivalence. A passage from Rosemary Curb in the groundbreaking book Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence is incisive: "Both nuns and Lesbians are emotionally inaccessible to male coercion... . A male-defined culture which moralizes about 'sins of the flesh' and the pollution and evil of women's carnal desires sees both nuns and Lesbians as 'unnatural' but at opposite poles on a scale of female virtue." Nunsploitation both celebrates and punishes this unnaturalness, commends and revenges this inaccessibility.
Thus doubly a non-object for man, the nun becomes a more desirable object, a perverse object. Her intolerable purity invites defilement (cf. Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant for a fairly mainstream demonstration). This central fantasy is the nun film's reason for being. It's most clearly expressed in the way the films fetishize the details of the nuns' clothing, in particular their sometimes rough, mortifying underclothes; a key image in the genre is that of a nun naked except for her white headpiece.
The nun movie is the mirror of another disreputable genre, the women-in-prison movie. Both deal with women's bodies in confined spaces, with innocence abused, with microsocieties, with the forms and channels of power. The women's prison and the convent are sexual laboratories, the prisoners/nuns experimental subjects. Thus the emphasis on surveillance. If two people are having sex in one of these movies, chances are a third character is there to watch. Concealment and revelation, crucial issues in all pornography, take on special importance in nun movies because the convent, or more precisely the cloister, is designated as a space of invisibility. But it's really the other way around: It's this designation that makes the cloister so apt a set for eroticism. Just as it's because the nun is supposed to deny her body and become invisible that she compels attention on the screen.
The two central movies in the nun subgenre are The Nuns of Sant'Arcangelo (Le Monache di Sant'Arcangelo) and Story of a Cloistered Nun (Storia di una monaca di clausura), both made in 1973 by Domenico Paolella, a long-time veteran of the Italian commercial cinema, best known for his musicals, pirate films, and "peplums" (spectacles about Hercules and other heroes of antiquity). Set in the 16th and 17th centuries, respectively, the two movies show the Church, the nobility, and the institution of the convent as vicious and corrupt. The only positive values are those of the nuns: their attachments to each other and to their boyfriends.
Condemned by the inquisition at the end of The Nuns of Sant'Arcangelo, Mother Giulia (Anne Heywood) ringingly denounces her persecutors: "You are judging me for corruption and cruelty. Am I more corrupt and cruel than you? A sinful relationship, yes. I seized the only chance of affection I had. Or am I accused of wanting power? What do you want? I was forced into this place, and here the only security is powerŠ. I'm speaking the truth, as I can now for the first time in my life. The law of the church is inhuman, and it made me inhuman too, like you. But I know I have a soul. And at last I'm free."
Paolella sets a style for the genre that would be imitated, but not equaled, in later convent films. The Nuns of Sant'Arcangelo is lush with slow tracking shots and warm lighting; it makes great use of medieval architecture, with imposing wide shots of groups in stone space. Dwelling on furtive movements down corridors and oblique private looks between characters, Paolella builds a high-movie-melodrama atmosphere that's rarely less than highly charged and that pays off in the unchained intensity of the final scenes. When Giulia takes poison, Anne Heywood's postures, gestures, screams, writhing, and gasping come as close to realizing Artaud's Theater of Cruelty as anything I've seen in a narrative, nonexperimental film.
Viewers in the mood for graphic sleaze may be put off by the lofty elegance and refinement of Paolella's approach. The scenes of nudity and torture are too distanced and too beautifully shot to be exploitative. Still, The Nuns of Sant'Arcangelo contains most of the items that would be included, with much more explicit detail, in later nun movies: lesbianism among nuns, men having consensual sex with nuns, men raping nuns (here only attempted; the victim [Ornella Muti] escapes), a test-for-virginity scene, nuns committing murder, self-mortification by nuns, torture of nuns. In Story of a Cloistered Nun, Paolella foregrounds the basis for the appeal of nun cinema to a male audience through a decadent male character who gloats to his buddy about how exciting it is to make love to a cloistered nun and who's turned on by his girlfriend's accounts of convent lesbianism and infighting ("I like to hear of quarrels between nuns...").
Like Mother Giulia in The Nuns of Sant'Arcangelo, the Mother Superior in Story (Suzy Kendall) complains of being starved for affection: "I need a little human warmth, a little love! Here we have love of prayer, divine love, love of God, and I do love God, but it doesn't erase the fact that I have this desire for another human being." The film ends with an inversion of values: Sister Carmela (Eleonora Giorgi) gives birth in the convent, an event that the Church regards as the ultimate outrage, but which creates solidarity among the squabbling, envious nuns, who shield Carmela from the authorities (in a variation on a scene that occurs repeatedly in Paolella adventure films and peplums) and help her escape.
The Nuns of Sant'Arcangelo includes the obscure credit: "Based on authentic 16th Century records and a story by Stendhal." Now it can be told. Stendhal found a French translation of a 16th-century chronicle called The Convent of Baiano and was so impressed he reworked the material as an anecdote in Roman Walks and as "Too Much Favor Kills," one of his Italian Chronicles. Paolella's film owes nothing to the two Stendhal stories and takes off directly from elements of The Convent of Baiano that Stendhal never reworked. Also based on archival records, Story of a Cloistered Nun brings Paolella's critique of the Church up to date with its closing rebuke that Carmela, who after leaving the convent spent her life helping wounded soldiers, cripples, and plague victims, "has not been canonized, nor even beatified."
Walerian Borowczyk's Behind the Convent Walls (Interno di un convento, 1978) follows Stendhal's Roman Walks version of the Convent of Baiano story, a cluttered convent tale of clandestine love affairs and poisoning, quite closely. But the director doesn't care about the plot as much as about the erotic games and rituals that consume the nuns' lives. Early in the film, two nuns improvise a lively organ and violin duet that spurs the other nuns to a giddy impromptu party. One nun whittles a dildo from a piece of wood and has a Christ-like male face painted on its end, then while masturbating holds a mirror next to the end of the dildo so that she can watch the face. In confession, another nun reveals an imaginary encounter with Jesus in which her legs and his formed a "pretzel."
Earlier in his career an animator and respected arthouse director, Borowczyk provides a visual lightness that's the opposite of Paolella's stateliness and heaviness. The film is shot entirely or almost entirely with a handheld camera and takes place usually in bright light, much of it streaming in toward the camera from large windows in the backgrounds of shots. This visual environment makes the actresses' bodies seem weightless, their movements free and unpredictable, their acts strangely consequence-less.
Paolella and Borowczyk represent the artistic peaks of nun cinema. Much more garden-variety are Joe D'Amato's Visions in a Convent (Immagini di un convento, 1979) and Convent of Sinners (La Monaca nel peccato, 1986) and Bruno Mattei's The True Story of the Nun of Monza (La vera storia della monaca di Monza, 1980). The Renaissance settings, situations, and anticlerical underpinnings in these three films are the same as in Paolella's, but the screenplays and direction are more unceremoniously exploitative. Mattei's film is hopeless apart from some nicely cynical dialogue, but D'Amato's work at least has a grim doggedness that makes it sort of distinctive. Convent of Sinners, based on Diderot's La religieuse(already filmed by Jacques Rivette in 1966), is probably the sleaziest film ever adapted from the work of an 18th-century philosopher (unless you count Sade, and even then). It contains a lot of whipping, much fondling of the convent's mute handyman, and an exorcism in which holy water is used in a way that seems unlikely to have ever been prescribed in an official manual. Let's not even get into Giuseppe Vari's Sister Emanuelle (Suor Emanuelle, 1977). I'm not really ashamed to admit I've seen all these films, but sometimes I feel I should be.
The most notorious of nun films is Gianfranco Mingozzi's revisionist Flavia, the Heretic (Flavia, la monaca musulmana, 1974), about a 15th-century nun (Florinda Bolkan) who, disgusted by the evils of the Church and the nobility, joins up with a band of Muslim invaders. Mingozzi's film is notable less for its depressing scenes of torture and violence than for its blunt feminism. Early in the film, Flavia asks: "Why must it always be men who decide everything?" Later: "Why is God male? The father, the son, and the holy ghost: all male. Even the twelve apostles, all twelve of them, male." Finally, supervising the murder of her father, Flavia exults: "Now you will pay for bringing me into a world dominated by men!"
There's something distinctly post-sixties about the sexual politics of the film. Flavia amusingly chides her traveling companion (Anthony Corlan) for having stayed awake all night keeping watch over her: "Oh, come on, aren't you taking this male protector role a little too seriously?" While Flavia gets good at working things out in practice, her pal, Sister Agatha, is apparently well on her way to elaborating a whole theory. (Agatha is played by Maria Casarès, in the '40s the star of Children of Paradise, The Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne, and Orpheus, probably the most distinguished actress ever to appear in an Italian exploitation film.) Agatha is nursing the revolution: "Our strength is in the convent. That's where our liberation begins. The convent walls reassure men that we are powerless. That's why they were invented. But those walls protect us and keep them out." She also observes: "Men are afraid--inside or outside the Mother Church--that their power is going to be stolen by us.... For a woman, sex is her power!"
The hidden, outrageous masterpiece of the genre is Giulio Berruti's The Killer Nun (Suor Omicidi, 1979). Berruti's contemporary-set film is just as sleazy as the classical nun movies of D'Amato, but in a much purer way: It's more perverse, more entertaining, more ingenious, less boringly salacious. In The Killer Nun, the Italian cinema catches up to the American and British horror films of the '60s that used aging female Hollywood stars. Even though she's Swedish and first became a star in America, Anita Ekberg is valid as Italy's answer to Bette Davis and Joan Crawford since she was in Italian movies during her prime (Sign of the Gladiator, La dolce vità, The Mongols, Boccaccio '70). The movie even has a secondary aging star, Alida Valli (The Paradine Case,The Third Man), in the small role of the Mother Superior.
The film begins with a title that places it in the line of previous nun movies by claiming the alibi of fact: "This film is based on actual events that took place in a Central European country not many years ago." Sister Gertrude (Ekberg), a nurse in the psychiatric ward of a Catholic hospital, has recently undergone surgery to remove a brain tumor. Now she suffers from headaches, has no control over her actions, can't focus, thinks everyone's against her, and needs morphine. Everyone tries to tell her that she's fine. When the doctor says that her tumor was benign, she snaps: "How do you know? You're not a specialist." The Mother Superior also refuses to believe in Gertrude's symptoms: Popping a chocolate into her mouth, she reminds Gertrude, "It is a nun's vocation to suffer," before hanging up the phone on her request to be put under observation.
Clearly Gertrude is suffering from an illness that can't be named. In the dining hall, she reads aloud from Tortures and Torments of the Christian Martyrs, relishing her ability to command the patients' stunned, cowlike silence. This scene, which belongs in a John Waters movie, devastatingly highlights the fact that the most gruesome, nauseating descriptions can become acceptable if related to religion and tagged with some edifying purpose. In the same scene, Gertrude, annoyed by the sight of an old woman's dentures in a glass on the dinner table, drops them on the floor and stomps on them repeatedly: "Disgusting! Disgusting! Disgusting!"
In an excellent sequence, scored with a pop song, Gertrude changes into civilian clothes and goes into town to score morphine. The change of clothes is liberating. Perusing the menu in a restaurant, oblivious to the waiter at her elbow, she says out loud: "Ah, yes, it's so nice to be treated like a lady. I think I'll start with a man." She spots a good-looking one alone at the bar and gives him the eye; he follows her out into the street and into the hallway of a building, where they fuck standing up against a wall.
The rest of the film concerns a series of murders of patients at the hospital. Each murder coinciding with one of Gertrude's morphine-induced blackouts, she appears (to herself, the other characters, and the audience) to be the killer nun. Gertrude eventually gets what she wanted all along: an acknowledgment from her Mother Superior that "she is very sick and requires special treatment." The real killer, meanwhile, confesses her homicidal compulsions to an empty confession booth.
The men in the film are strategically cast. Gertrude's anonymous pick-up is a silent, cool, obliging stud who doesn't care about her except as a piece of meat. He could be a figure in her fantasy and drops out of the film as soon as he's fulfilled his function. His disappearance leaves the hero role to be split between two amazingly inadequate and ambiguous men. Joe Dallesandro, best remembered as the narcissistic lump at the center of Paul Morrissey's Flesh and Trash, plays the new head of the psychiatric ward and from our first sight of him in this role he inspires zero confidence. Not only does Dallesandro's character fail to improve the situation at the hospital, he lets himself be seduced without offering even token resistance by the saucy young nun who turns out to be the villainess. The other main male character is played by Lou Castel, puzzling icon of baby-faced passivity in numerous European westerns and sex films of the '60s. Here Castel, as a lame patient, drags himself through the whole film on crutches and with his air of glumness seems to be asking to be kicked to death and put out of his misery, which eventually happens.
The total debility of the men in the film allows Berruti to short-circuit the predictable sexual politics of most nun films. Actually, The Killer Nun isn't about sex at all; it's about gratification. Sister Gertrude must have whatever she wants now, she must express whatever she wants to express now. Whether she's alone, with one other person, or surrounded by a group, she always acts like she's alone-a quality that makes Gertrude one of the great characters in cinema. Past caring what other people think about her, she can't help making a spectacle of herself as she cracks up. In other words, she is in a cinematic state of grace.
The film's other main theme is disgust. The body and fluids torment Gertrude: the dentures in the glass, the pink fluid immersing scalpels in a surgery room, the IV bag she feels compelled to disconnect from a still-living patient. Gertrude despises her patients' bodies and wants to wear them out. At one point she leads the patients in an exercise session, chanting "one-two": at one, they clap their hands over their heads, at two, they clap hands below the waist. Because of the emphatic cutting, the ones and twos somehow always seem to be in the wrong place, coming too fast, out of control: exercise as convulsion.
What Gertrude wants most of all is to be a patient. This ambition so characteristic of our time (announced prophetically in another film set in a mental hospital, Vincente Minnelli's 1955 The Cobweb, in which the wish is expressed by a young boy) both gives Gertrude universality and prevents her from being a tragic figure. Sick people may be tragic in some circumstances, but people who desperately want to be sick so that they can be taken care of are more likely absurd. Which Gertrude is, but not without also being heroic.
The nuns in all these films are prisoners. They make do with what they have, offering themselves a little pleasure between, or in defiance of, the regulations. But this making-do becomes self-destruction because the order within which it's exercised is strictly negative. The nuns take upon their own bodies the negativity of that order, ingesting its poison (Giulia in The Nuns of Sant'Arcangelo) or suffering, in torture, the inscription of its law in their flesh.
The most radical nuns are the masochists, the ones who identify most completely with their victim roles. Chiara (Martine Brochard) in The Nuns of Sant'Arcangelo kneels on broken glass, squeezes rose-bush thorns into her palms, ties thorns around her waist, and enjoys being slapped around by Giulia (when the latter's anger becomes tenderness, Chiara asks excitedly, "Do you feel sorry for me?"). Livia in Flavia receives the sting of St. George's sword, the metaphoric tarantula bite that permits her to join in the mass hysteria of the Tarantula cult. Gertrude's morphine shots are the updated version of Livia's sting, dissolving identity not into group catharsis but into a solitude of total indifference.
The emphasis in these convent films is constantly on what, in this policed space of exile, banishment, solitude, and mourning, happens to bodies, what they take in and keep out. Flavia hallucinates an orgiastic feast at which nuns apparently devour the body of a young woman laid out on a banquet table. This cannibalism inverts the injunction to fasting in Story of a Cloistered Nun, the rejection of food in The Killer Nun, and the tainting of nourishment in The Nuns of Sant'Arcangelo and Behind the Convent Walls.
The food theme is close to the heart of the nun films' fascination; the sacred space set out for mystical encounter is a space of incorporation and exclusion where bodies are caressed and punished, filled and emptied. Does the clarity with which nun films center on these issues make them watchable today except as either a) fodder for perverts or b) more documentation of what everybody knows about already: the institutional and representational structures that have been in place to oppress women? I can't judge; my head is swirling with prayers in Latin and the cracking of whips. Say what you will about these movies: I am drawn to the nun, this most completely other of others, and I find her image propitious and her predicament compelling.