Flavia the Heretic

‘Go on! Run your balls off!’ shouts Sister Agatha, when her village-men turn in fear as the Turkish military fleet approach the Italian shores of Otranto. She is María Casares, best known as Death in Cocteau’s Orpheus (1950), bellowing insults at the men who have tortured women from her convent as a wonderful, naughty nun in Flavia the Heretic (1974), directed by Gianfranco Mingozzi. She’s looking forward to their comeuppance. We’ve also seen her enjoying a baptismal release of her bladder en plein air on the hillside and introduce Sister Flavia to the pleasures of holy swaying on your haunches while kneeling in prayer. ‘How many rude things can we make nuns do?’ ask the producers of exploitation sub-genre nunsploitation. Arguably, any exploitation-style efforts to engage our social consciousness are dumped, despite the producers’ claims that the films are based on ‘actual’ historical events. Flavia the Heretic is loosely based on the slaughter of the Catholic martyrs by the Ottoman Turks in Otranto in the late 15th century. But this simply provides a historical backdrop for a whole lot of sleaze. The central characters are revenge-driven, misandrous women. In Killer Nun (1978), directed by Giulio Berruti, with a nod to giallo, the anonymous antagonist snarls to her priest at confessional that she is haunted by traumatic abuse and wants to avenge herself on all men; Flavia too wants revenge for the patriarchal limitations placed on her – her only options are marriage, either to the church or to a man. These films became famous in the 70s when they were shredded and banned for their overt extreme violence and sexual deviance. They currently enjoy a reprieve as recently uncut versions have become available on DVD by distributors such as Shameless Screen Entertainment.

As an excuse for porn, the unleashed repression of nuns is a good one. There are scenes upon scenes of nuns jumping at the chance to indulge their passions: ‘no woman could berate sex completely!’ is the subtext. It is a delicious moment when Anita Ekberg as Sister Gertrude in Killer Nun changes her clothes en route into town and transforms to familiar on-screen Amazonian siren – she sits in a bar, black-stockinged and smoking an impossibly long cigarette to twangy lounge music. She eyes up a wooden but fairly good-looking man at the bar and so the taboo-busting money shot ensues when we see Ekberg enjoy carnal gratification after what we can assume has been some time. Not just that, but the old man she’s going to sneak home to later is, in the eyes of the Catholic church, somewhat important. In (Flavia the Heretic, medieval Italian nuns loosen up after they give shelter to female members of the Cult of the Tarantula who are on their annual bender. The nuns are influenced by the women’s hyper-sexual trance state and reel around, shedding their garments and rubbing themselves against columns and each other – and so on to the whole wealth of cheeky spectacles to be had in women-only convents.

Within this fairly formulaic titillation are some imaginative sequences. Nuns dealing with the seepage of their desires is an opportunity for some vibrant visions where their uncensored hankerings come to the surface. The success of these scenes is mainly due to some good pairings of cinematographer and soundtrack composer. In Flavia the Heretic, Alfio Contini (The Night Porter, 1974) teams up with composer Nicola Piovani. After everything goes wrong in the bedroom (Flavia wants to go on top but her new Turkish lover does not want to be dominated), Flavia gets high on mind-bending incense and the vision that follows is a montage complemented by a haunting electronic occult-folk soundtrack: Sister Agatha rises from the dead grinning insanely, blood pours from stigmata, a nun bound to a cross is juxtaposed with a suspended disemboweled cow, a nude gamine woman crawls into the carcass, another sister is outstretched on a table, mock-devoured by more naked people. All this could suggest female subjugation – woman as meat, if the actors/characters didn’t look like they were having so much fun. Play-biting and tousled hair flowing from wimples is not sinister. Rather more, this is a stylised stirring flesh feast.

In Killer Nun, Sister Gertrude believes herself to be the possible killer of patients in the psychiatric hospital she is stationed at. Her headaches from post-brain surgery have led to morphine addiction and unsettling blackouts. Her hallucinations are pieced together over a psychedelic score by Alessandro Alessandroni, who worked closely with Ennio Morricone and Sergio Leone on Italian Western scores, and cinematographer Antonio Maccoppi. His soundtrack is what spotlights Killer Nun among other giallo fare. He uses a range of instruments including 12-string guitar, banjo, classical guitar, electric guitar, mandolin, early drum machine and others (Cinema Suicide blog interview with Tim Fife, Aug 2008) to produce an uncanny discordance suitable for a scene that reflects Gertrude’s drug-induced state. The sequence moves between Gertrude’s vision, a close-up of a unconvincing but gory brain operation, her overbearing mother, a nude man laid out in a morgue, who Gertrude bends down to kiss, and stoned Gertrude in her own bedroom in the hospital being resuscitated by one of the patients. The intercutting of realities to the giallo guitars peaks when the patient is bludgeoned to death and pushed out of a window, seemingly by ‘diminished responsibility’ Gertrude.

My reading of these films, then, is about an enjoyment of the sheer daftness of saucy nuns and the manner in which their over-spilling ardor is manifested in such bizarre ways. I think this is the way into the films, as opposed to tracing the closed misogyny in the narratives. I haven’t gone into the sprawl of gender issues here – where revenge plots experiment with women exerting their right to freedom without mapping out the society where it could exist: Flavia eventually punishes her father, but only with the protection of the Turkish soldiers, who in turn persecute her. Also, at one remove from this, arguably the Italian male filmmakers use the nun milieu as a framing device for their male gaze. But when Anita Ekberg sways beatifically across the screen it is difficult to imagine her being oppressed by anything.

Nicola Woodham