Flavia the Heretic

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FLAVIA THE HERETIC is one of those films that has always had a relatively high profile amongst fans of Euro-cult films, despite the fact that it's always been very difficult to see in its full version - indeed, the Italian language print was the only way to see it... until now, anyway. Synapse Films have painstakingly restored the film for its DVD release, and this represents the first time that the 'director's cut' has been available with the English language track (which matches the actor's lip movements). Previously, Redemption's heavily censored (but widescreen) UK tape was the best home video version widely available.

Flavia (Florinda Bolkan) is indentured into a life as a nun by her father, Sir Richard. She is unhappy with her life and daydreams, whilst praying, of a warrior who she witnessed her father beheading as a young girl. One day a strange cult called the 'Tarantulas' arrive at the convent. They are (rather unwisely) admitted and wreak havoc, frenziedly writhing about wailing. One of the nuns is possessed with the same feverish ecstasy and rips her habit open, caressing her breasts whilst imagining a statue coming to life. When the cultists are finally expelled once more, the naughty nun is thrown into a cell to await the coming of the Bishop. Flavia goes to her Jewish friend Abraham (Claudio Cassinelli, a regular in Sergio Martino's films) to bemoan the treatment of the nuns. The Bishop arrives and takes the nun away, much to Flavia's outrage. She witnesses the new Duke raping a farm girl in a pig sty, and then sees the nun being tortured, at her father's behest. In a rage, she decides to run away with Abraham, but they're soon caught and Flavia is whipped whilst Abraham is locked away. An older Sister, Agatha shares Flavia's hatred of men and encourages her in her rebellion. When a band of Moslems attack the town, Flavia seizes her chance to find the 'other world' that she's been seeking and takes up with the Moslem leader. Accompanied by the Moslems, she rides back to the convent to take revenge...

Nunsploitation films occupy a strange sub-genre, which was kickstarted by THE DEVILS (1971) in the same way that DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) was responsible for so many gory zombie films. They don't exactly tend to be high-brow - think Mattei's THE OTHER HELL (1980), Grieco's THE SINFUL NUNS OF ST VALENTINE (1973), Anita Ekberg in KILLER NUN (1978), D'Amato's VISIONS IN A CONVENT (1979), Franco's LES DEMONS (1972) and LOVE LETTER OF A PORTUGESE NUN (1977), and so on - even the Japanese had a go with WET ROPE (1979) and CONVENT OF THE SACRED BEAST (1974). However, there are exceptions - Borowyczk's BEHIND CONVENT WALLS (1977) is a supremely classy effort and the Mexican film ALUCARDA (1978) is also very worthy, but Gianfranco Mingozzi's FLAVIA is probably the best of all. Mingozzi is a relatively prolific director within Italy, but few of his films have been released internationally, and FLAVIA is almost certainly his best known work (he also directed a 1965 biopic about Antonioni).

FLAVIA takes a much more serious approach to the issue of repression than most films of this type - early on, Flavia is compared to Lillith, the first woman, and the whole film depicts men as cowardly, cruel and undeserving of their superior position in society (with the notable exception of the Jew). It's also more historically accurate than one would expect, this being helped by the fact that the film is loosely based on real events (the 'Muselman Invasion'). The film berates both the Christian and Moslem religions - at one point, Sister Agatha tells a frightened woman "the Moslems can do nothing to you that the Christians haven't done". The film is beautifully photographed (DP Alfio Contini also photographed ZABRISKIE POINT (1970), THE NIGHT PORTER (1974) and DAMNED IN VENICE (1977), amongst many others) and Mingozzi's direction is excellent. Additionally, there is a fantastic, haunting score by Nicola Piovani, who recently won an Oscar for LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL (1997) and also scored the excellent THE PEFRFUME OF THE LADY IN BLACK (1973).

But, what about the exploitative elements that make FLAVIA such a renowned entry in this unholy canon of films, I hear you ask. Well, to be fair the film is quite slow moving and doesn't compare in terms of gratuity with other nunsploitation films. On the other hand, when the exploitative side of the film does rear its head, one certainly takes notice! Scenes like the torture of the nun (including a close-up of a nipple being sliced off), two beheadings, male sodomy, rape, numerous stabbings and a CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST-style impalement, not to mention the gob-smacking finalé, copious full frontal nudity (both male and female) and a completely unnecessary horse castration, all of which add up to leave the viewer in no doubt that whatever art house trappings the film may outwardly boast, it's still very much an Italian exploitation film at heart. There's also a completely bizarre hallucination sequence towards the end, involving a woman climbing into the strung-up, hollowed-out corpse of a cow...

Florinda Bolkan is the element that really makes FLAVIA work. She's immediately familiar to horror fans thanks to her roles in Fulci's two best gialli, A LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN (1971) and DON'T TORTURE A DUCKLING (1972), and here she turns in an admirable performance that really holds the viewer's attention. Her strange, cultured, angular features almost recall those of Brigitte Lahaie, though obviously Bolkan would be the dark to Lahaie's light. Watching the film one really gets the sense that Bolkan believed in the role, and this is confirmed in the video interview with her that is included on the DVD. I heartily recommend FLAVIA to all fans of European exploitation films, though do be prepared for a relatively slow-moving, serious and restrained film, for the most part at least!

Reviewed by Tom Foster