Wednesday 9 December 2020

Cult Cinema #32: Counting to Nun, Part Two

Flavia the Heretic (Flavia, la monaca musulmana)(1974)

I was going to get to a nunsploitation movie. It was inevitable. Spoilers, of course, and a movie that features stuff that may well ruin your day, given the rapey sort of thing we habitually find in movies like this. Proceed with caution. This is, by the way, an extract from my imminent book Cult Cinema. Stay tuned for more information about that very soon.

If we’re going to talk about nunsploitation, we’d better talk about the real thing.

Italian genre cinema of the 70s — the 60s and 80s too I suppose, but mostly the 70s — could best be described as an entire industry picking up an idea and running away with it at a breakneck pace to a place where that idea didn’t normally go, until the idea, dizzy and corrupted by the strange pleasures of the alien environment it found itself in, became an idea that was more or less unrecognisable to the ideas that parented it, who probably would respond to it with horror and grief at the moral trainwreck their child had grown into, even though the idea was probably now an awful lot more entertaining in social gatherings.

It's why the aesthetic of the Spaghetti Western is probably more iconic than the aesthetic of Actual Western Westerns (were I to ask you, I would wager that the first Western theme you can hum or whistle is probably Ennio Morricone’s theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly). It’s why the Italian Serial Killer Movie — the giallo — is so utterly bonkers, filled to the brim with blood and knives and erotica. And it’s why so many of the movies in the middle of the early 1980s “Video Nasty” panic were Italian zombie and cannibal movies. If Italian nun movies contained convents full of scabrous, fleshly delights, it should come as no surprise. But at the same time, many of the people working on these movies were aiming for more than trash. They might have often wound up with trash, but even while “horrible things happening to unclad young women” is pretty much a defining trait of Italian exploitation cinema, the directors, actors, and score composers spent a lot of time aiming for art.

Which is how you get a film like Gianfranco Mingozzi’s Flavia the Heretic (1974). The acting is good. The cinematography is beautiful. Nicola Piovani’s score (see also The Perfume of the Lady in Black) is, as with all his scores, a thing of melancholy beauty. The film wants to say something important. A lot of horrible things happen to unclad young women. But this is as good as nunsploitation gets, really. It fails on so many levels, and yet reaches for something elevated, something thought provoking. And I have a lot more time for something that does that, to be honest. In a straight choice between this and a tick-the-diversity-boxes-without-actually-doing-diversity Marvel superhero movie, I know what I'd rather be watching.

The film is set in Italy at the dawn of the 15th century. A young girl, Flavia Gaetani, daughter of an inquisitorial judge, witnesses the massacre of a Turkish raiding party. She finds one of them still alive, a beautiful young man. But before she can offer him kindness, her dad comes along and chops off his head. Unhappy with Flavia being nice to the enemy, he packs her off to a convent, and she remains there into adulthood (and she’s played as an adult by exploitation cinema legend Florinda Bolkan). But even years later, she fantasises about the young Muslim she saw killed. As she prays, she sees his face in the tapestry of St George on the wall of the convent sanctuary.

Flavia sees casual cruelty wherever she goes, and, correctly, sees men at the heart of it. While out in the countryside, Flavia sees a woman raped in a pigsty by the Duke (Spiros Focás), and, seen by the man, is mocked and threatened; he knows there is nothing she can do. At the beginning of the film, a group of cultists enter the convent — bitten by the tarantula, they are forced to dance ecstatically — and one nun, Sister Livia (Raika Juri), loses herself in the chaos. She has a vision of St George, also centred on the tapestry. She joins in the ecstatic debauchery of the Tarantella. Despite Flavia’s pleading, Flavia’s father the judge (Diego Michelotti), orders the disgraced Livia tortured to death in the nastiest possible way.

Flavia only knows one decent man (“the only I know who is not arrogant”), Abraham the Jew (Claudio Cassinelli) who, being a Jew in a Mediterranean country, lives under a constant threat of death. His friendship with Flavia seems to be predicated upon revealing to her the secrets of apocryphal scripture: he tells her the story of Lilith, who in Jewish myth was the first wife of Adam, who sinned and escaped Eden, which is of course a sort of inverted foreshadowing of what’s to come. She will try to run away with him. It won’t work. Meanwhile, the embittered, older Sister Agata (María Casares) tries to convince Flavia that she is wasting her life in the convent, that her vows are worthless, that the point of nuns is to make women powerless, that Christianity exists to repress and destroy the freedoms and pleasures of women.

Flavia: Why? Why is God male? The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost — all male? Even the twelve apostles, all twelve of them, male.

Hope arises when Flavia and Agata witness an invading force of Muslims, led by the nobleman Ahmed (Anthony Higgins). Although Agata dies in the fracas, Flavia sees the arrival of a hostile army — and a nonchristian one — as a vehicle for revenge.

Agata: Woman, where are you going? The Muslims can do nothing to you the Christians haven’t done!

It’s to the Muslim prince that Flavia gives her virginity, and, giving her aid to the invaders, leads the invading forces as vehicles of her revenge against the Christians. But her revenge is hollow, and in wearing the armour of a man and attempting to commit the atrocities of a man, she can’t quite get it right. Ahmed turns out to be no better than the Christians. She is cast out before she can convert and, caught by the Christians, is flayed alive.

Flavia the Heretic
falls pretty firmly into that category of films that are fiercely angry about the horrors routinely inflicted on women and the hypocrisy of a patriarchal religion that preaches gentleness and mercy and does none of it. It is a film that is openly and explicitly angry about misogyny. But apart from the passionate dialogue about the injustice of patriarchy, of which there is a lot, and it is not subtle, it does this by making sure you see women being violated. It’s almost as if Italian cinema of this era has a Rapeyness Quota, in that it seems expected that this sort of thing happens and so the makers of the film have to include it, no matter how incongruous it feels. And towards the end of the film, we get a lengthy dream sequence, full of torture, sex and nudity, presumably because it was the only way they could cram enough Proper Exploitation in before the end credits roll.

But it’s still a film about cruelty and hypocrisy, and here the convent is a sort of vehicle for that, a reason for Flavia to be downtrodden.

Agata: The convent walls reassure men we are powerless.

Flavia refuses to be reduced, and towards the end of the film dons armour, and with her short convent haircut, she recalls nothing less than an apostate Jeanne D’Arc. But it ends for her pretty much how it ends for the Maid of Orleans. Flavia’s revenge on the brutal Christian system that crushes her is abortive. She tries the tactics of the rapist and the murderer, and they don’t work out any better than when men use them. It’s worse for her, in fact, because her nature is to be decent. There’s a blank horror when she sees some of the death she’s wrought.

What seemed like it might be a trashy blood-habits-and-tits exploitation flick has turned into something far more serious and bleak. And yes, Flavia the Heretic plays into the tropes of the video nasty, but it has something to say. And it wants you to pay attention to what it says, not what it does.