Thursday, August 27, 2020

Return of Nun Month: Nunsploitation!

Nunsploitation Trailers

When some people think of films about nuns, they think of some of the sweetest and most wholesome films that have ever graced the silver screen, like The Sound of Music and The Bells of Saint Mary. But a different kind of nun films, nun films that are not so high-minded and proper. An entire genre of nun films -- Nunsploitation pictures -- features horror, sadomasochism, and explicit sexuality. (If you think I’m making this up, “Nunsploitation” does have its own Wikipedia entry, and we all know that if it’s on Wikipedia it must be true.)

We have had at least one example of Nunsploitation already here at Movie Churches. Back in 2018, with the theme of horror movie sequels, we featured The Nun, a movie from the Conjuring series (not to be confused with a different The Nun we looked at earlier this month). In a previous Nun Month, we looked at a film obsessed with Nun sexuality, The Little Hours. These were both fairly respectable films from major studios. Nunsploitation films are often the product of independent filmmakers trying to make a quick buck with tawdry and sensational material.

We won’t dive too deep into why these films are made and why people watch them. Some think it comes from former Catholic school students who viewed their former teachers as objects of terror and desire. Now those fantasies of fright and lust have reached more broadly to the culture as a whole, even the world culture.

There are a whole lot of these films, and frankly, I didn’t want to spend a great deal of time watching even a few prime examples of the genre. (I also didn’t want to pay the utility bill that would come from all the long showers I need after watching many of these films.) Instead, I decided if Movie Churches needed to look at the world of Nunsploitation, we would do it through looking at two secondary sources: movie trailers and Wikipedia summaries. Here are some of the most notorious examples of Nunsploitation through the years.

Haxan (1922) - Nunsploitation is not a new thing (though there have been a flurry of nun horror films in the last few years.) This Danish/Swedish “documentary” looked at witchcraft and Satanism during the Middle Ages. Along with witches riding brooms and child sacrifice, there are depictions of demon-possessed nuns and monks. This film was banned from the United State for years because of its use of nudity and torture. After sensational portraits of the devil and magic, the film ends with a disclaimer that mental illness is the most likely explanation of this phenomenon from history.

The Devils
(1971) This big-budget film from a major studio (Warner Brothers) had a major director (Ken Russell) and stars (Oliver Reed and Vanessa Redgrave) who all were comfortable making a film that received an X rating (though some scenes considered too blasphemous and sexually explicit were cut for the U.S. release). It was a financial success in Britain and the U.S. but was banned in Finland. A full version of the film has never had an unedited release, but the U.S. edit has been released on the Shudder Channel.

The Sinful Nuns of Saint Valentine (1974) This Italian film takes a bit of its plot from Romeo and Juliet with young lovers from feuding families kept apart by sending the young woman to a convent. The convent is a madhouse of torture with multiple nuns accosting each other. There are also swordfights when the young man comes to rescue his beloved.

School of the Holy Beast (1974) Japan has a very small Christian population, but that hasn’t stopped a number of rather perverse films about convents from being made there. This was the first, based on a manga. It featured an innocent young woman subjected to hypocritical, perverse Sisters. The trailer's credits promise, “Sex! Passion! Lust! Incest! Vengeance! God!”

Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun
(1977) This is actually a German film, but it was filmed in Portugal. Sixteen-year-old Maria is sent to a convent that is secretly run by Satanists. Maria is tortured and forced to have sex with men, women, and the Devil himself (played by an actor by the name of Hebert Fux.)

Alucarda (1977) One of Mexico’s entries in the genre is a vampire film (note what you get when you spell the title backwards, a bit of a nod to or theft from Son of Dracula.) But you don't only get vampires, but also what looks like mummies and some exorcisms to boot. And bloody, naked nuns.

The Killer Nun (1979) All the previous films were period films, usually set in the Middle Ages, but  this Italian film starring Anita Ekberg has a contemporary setting. It's about a nun whose brain tumor makes her both homicidal and sexually adventurous. Oh, and a drug addict as well. A bit of a noir mystery, but still plenty of titillation and sensationalism.

After a boom of Nunsploitation in the seventies, there was a bit of a break for the genre for a couple of decades (with some exceptions such as 1986’s Convent of Sinners and 1993’s Dark Waters  -- A No Shame Presentation). The genre has made a comeback in this century, with a bit more of an emphasis on the horror and violence over the sex.

The Nun (2006) There are a whole lot of films called The Nun (we’ve featured two of them here at Movie Churches). This film owes a whole lot to the teen slasher horror films of the previous two decades (such as the Friday the 13th and Scream films). A horrible nun teacher was killed, perhaps by her students, and the teenage children of those students are dying off in horrible ways. One of the students even says in the trailer, “So you’re trying to tell me this whole thing is an I Know What You Did 18 Summers Ago thing?”

Nun of That
(2009) This is a low budget camp fest about “the Order of the Black Habit” that had been “for over 1500 years fighting crime and keeping the world safe from evil.” For some reason all of the nuns in the order are named after the Seven Deadly Sins and quip in 1970’s jive as they dispatch lowlife thugs. The trailer promises “A blast for you and blasphemy for Good Friday 2009!”

Nude Nuns with Big Guns (2010) Well, the title says it all, doesn’t it? The trailer promises, “Freak Show Entertainment is proud to present the most unholy film you will see this year!” A young nun is raped, beaten, and abused by priests and a motorcycle gang, and then claims that God has called her to revenge.

Bad Sister (2015) This Nunsploitation film owes much to another kind of Hollywood favorite brand of sexual thriller. The Fatal Attraction influence is strong in this one about a teaching nun who seduces one of her male high school students and doesn’t like to think of him being with anyone else.

Nun Smack
(2016) This extremely low budget comedy is about drug dealers who hide out in a church (which doesn’t look Catholic) with three nuns who are not what they seem to be (think Dusk to Dawn, if that helps.)

The Nunsploitation trend continues, though originality isn’t always at the forefront. 2018 brought us The Curse of the Nun and 2020 brought A Nun’s Curse, both extremely low budget affairs ripping off 2018’s The Nun with ghost/demon nuns terrorizing young couples. Neither is a film I will be seeking out.

Okay, I did watch one Nunsploitation film while researching this post. I watched Come to Me Sister Mary because it was a short film, only 18 minutes long. It tells the story of a nun who gives in to temptation, dressing in civilian clothes and picking up a man in a bar. Things get rather grim, and the nun pays for her sins. Though she prays for forgiveness, there is no grace to be found in this film. Like many Nunsploitation films of this last decade, horror takes precedence.

So I ask again, why has this genre continued to have such apparent success? Maybe we sinners hate to think of other people being so very good when we know our hearts are so very wicked. That's really quite sad.

Without exception the above nuns, priests, convents, and churches earn our lowest Movie Church rating of One Steeple.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Return of of Nun Month: Viridiana


Prior to this blog, I had a general interest blog (okay, my interests blog) in which I -- more often than not --wrote about movies. For the Return of Nun Month, I thought I ought to dig up a post I wrote for that blog back in December of 2009. It's about one of the great nun (anti-nun?) films of all time. You can decide if my writing has improved or degraded.

To summarize the first paragraph of the original post, I wrote that though I usually wrote about Christmas films at that time of year, I'd decided to do something rather different. Here's the rest of the post:

Instead, I’m going to write about an anti-Christmas film (really an anti-Christian film, but we’ll see that in this context it’s the same thing). Most films that attack the Christian faith take a safer route than the film I’m going to discuss. Many films, Elmer Gantry for example, attack the clergy. Well, most Christians are willing to admit that all have sinned, and there are more than a few scoundrels that have abused their roles as evangelists, pastors, and priests. Some filmmakers (such as the Pythons when they publicized The Life of Brian) claim that they have no problem with faith itself, just with “organized religion. I see very little virtue to the apparent alternative of “chaotic religion.”

Viridiana, filmed in Spain in 1961 by the acclaimed writer/director Luis Bunuel, takes a much bolder stand. It attacks Christianity on the grounds that acts of charity and compassion are futile and without worth.

The film tells the story of a young novice (Silvia Pinal), instructed by her Mother Superior to visit her uncle before she takes her vows. She has up until then had little contact with the uncle who financially supported her.

She obeys and visits her uncle, Don Jaime (Fernando Rey), at his vast but decaying estate and finds him to be a man of rather depraved tastes. He tells Viridiana that she reminds him of his late wife and asks the much younger woman to marry him. When she refuses him, he drugs her coffee and takes advantage of her (to an unclear degree). After this incident, the uncle kills himself, presumably due to his feelings of guilt.

Viridiana learns she has inherited her uncle’s estate, but it is to be shared with her uncle’s illegitimate son, Jorge (Francisco Rabal). Like his father, Jorge is a man who pursues pleasure above all else.

Viridiana decides to open the estate to the poor in the village, inviting the blind, the crippled, and the destitute, but they take advantage of her hospitality, staging a party in the house that becomes not just an orgy, but a mockery of the Last Supper.

In one of the film’s famed sequences, we see Jorge attempting to perform an act of kindness. He sees a man dragging a dog chained to a wagon. Jorge buys the dog from the man so he will no longer be abused. But we then see another man, another wagon, and another dog even more greatly abused. The implication is that any act of charity can only change a minute fraction of the evil in the world. The film implies that those who are charitable will be betrayed and abused, while no lasting good will come of any of it. Better to "eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we will die."

These charges come as no surprise to anyone who knows Scripture. Jesus acknowledged there would never be an end to need when He said, "The poor you will always have with you" (Mark 14:7). His entire ministry is an example of generosity received with ingratitude, betrayal, and violence, but he came to save His enemies (Romans 5: 7 - 8). He came in the flesh that first Christmas, knowing that He had come to die. His viewpoint was bigger than ours. He knew that after the cross would come the resurrection. We can know that acts of compassion are not futile because every gift we give in His name, He receives (Matthew 25:40).

One bit of business before we close up here. At the time I wrote this, over a decade ago, I was not rating clergy and churches with our Steeple system. I recently rewatched the film and found out the church and clergy really come out rather well. The Mother Superior has genuine compassion not only for Viridiana but also for the girl’s uncle. When she hears about the uncle’s suicide from a local parish priest, she hurries with other nuns to be at Viridaina’s side.

Viridiana never takes her vows, so never officially becomes “clergy,” but she is a woman of compassion trying to care for the needs of the poor. Unfortunately, she works outside of the policies and strictures of the church which might have allowed her to act more prudently. Still, she is our primary near-clergy figure in the film, and her foolishness keeps her from our highest rating, giving her a Three Steeple rating.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Nuns Have a Weird Place in our Culture

 This is "Return to Nun Month" here at Movie Churches and a visit to Archie McPhee's, the novelty gift shop here in Seattle, reminded me of how strangely nuns are viewed in our culture. I'll explain with pictures.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

The Return of Nun Month: The Nun (La Religieuse)

The Nun

The opening title card (translated from French) reads that the film is “loosely based on a controversial book.” That book was an 18th century novel by Denis Diderot, La Religieuse. But “controversial” in 1780 wasn’t so much so in 1966 when this film came out, let alone today.

What was the controversial issue? Should someone be held to their religious vows when those vows were made under duress or after a person no longer believes in those vows? I don’t think anyone in any position of authority in the Roman Catholic church would try to hold someone to their vows in either situation.

But I guess things were different in Paris in 1757, the setting of Jacques Rivette’s 1966 film, The Nun, based on Denis Diderot’s 1780 novel, La Religieuse. The film opens with a young woman in a wedding dress in a church. There are metal bars that separate the audience from the woman with the clergy; nuns and priests. The woman in the bridal gown is asked if she is there of her own free well and she responds, “Yes,” but she is obviously agitated. When asked if she wants to take the vows of obedience, poverty, and celibacy, she responds, “No.” This causes quite the scandal.

Suzanne (Anna Karina), the seventeen-year-old in the wedding dress, was committed by her parents to the convent. Her parents had found husbands for Suzanne’s sisters but said they couldn’t find a husband for Suzanne and they couldn’t afford a proper dowry for her. (It's a little baffling; she's beautiful, and they  managed to come up with a dowry for the convent.) In time we learn, as Suzanne learns (though the man who thinks he is Suzanne’s father does not learn) that Suzanne is illegitimate. That's one reason Suzanne’s mother doesn’t believe they can find her daughter a husband. Finding a husband was even more difficult after Suzanne refused to take her vows as a nun. 

Suzanne retreats to a bedroom at her parents’ house and refuses to come out for months. Her parents call in the priest, who’s heard the family's confessions for twenty years, to talk with Suzanne and convince her to go to the convent. The priest needs some convincing to do the convincing, saying, “God is the One who calls to His vocation, and it is dangerous to add our voices to His.” When he talks to Suzanne he asks her to talk freely because, “I took my orders late in life, perhaps I will understand.” He tells her she may regret rejecting the convent because she doesn’t have many options in her life.

So Suzanne goes to the convent where she finds a friend in the Reverend Mother, Mme de Moni (Micheline Presle). She proves a much more healthy maternal figure than Suzanne's own mother, and she is quite understanding about Suzanne’s reluctance to take vows. Suzanne enchants the convent with her singing and harpsichord talents. And Suzanne is given what I thought was a very large room of her own.

Mme de Moni tells Suzanne that some in convents and monasteries weren’t called but manage to live fulfilling lives. She asks Suzanne if she loves God and Suzanne responds, “With all my soul.” Suzanne asks, “What if I am not made to be a nun?” 

“Let grace do its work,” the Reverend Mother responds. Together, the women pray the Lord's Prayer

When it comes time for her to take vows, Suzanne does, but claims to remember nothing about the ceremony. She seems to settle into life as a nun. But then tragedy strikes. Both Suzanne’s physical and spiritual mothers die within months of each other.

The new Reverend Mother, Sainte-Christine (Francine Berge), is a cruel woman. She makes Suzanne a special object of persecution when Suzanne expresses her desire to leave the convent and forsake her vows. Suzanne is forbidden from singing and playing the harpsichord. The Reverend Mother encourages the other sisters to shun Suzanne and screams at Suzanne, “There is no God for you! Die and be damned!”

Suzanne decides to take legal action in the secular courts to be freed of her vows. Saint-Christine becomes increasingly harsh, taking away Suzanne’s crucifix and Bible. She refuses to allow her to share in the convent meals, and Suzanne must beg for food at the kitchen.

Suzanne loses her case in court, but the court does recognize the abusive treatment Suzanne has received and orders that she must be fed and be allowed to worship. Her lawyer secures her transfer to another convent.  

The Mother Superior at the new convent, Mme de Chelles (Liselotte Pulver) seems delighted with Suzanne and encourages her to sing and play the harpsichord. But when Suzanne plays a hymn she is told, “Very pretty, but we have all the saintliness we need at church.” 

Mme de Chelles is far from saintly. She forces the woman under her authority to grant her sexual favors and pressures Suzanne to let her into her room at night and let her sleep in her bed. Suzanne seems unclear about what she is being asked to do but refuses none the less.

Suzanne decides she must leave this convent as well, and a priest offers to help her escape. After her escape, the priest makes sexual advances. Suzanne flees him as well. She finds work as a servant but is fired. She turns to life as a beggar but when a woman offers her a job, Suzanne takes the opportunity. When she realizes she is being turned into a prostitute, Suzanne commits suicide by jumping from a high window.

It’s all a very sad story but I don’t see how it’s controversial. I believe all agree, even clergy back in the day, that people shouldn’t be forced into religious vows they don’t believe or be held to those vows if they cease to believe. Because there are clergy that try to help and encourage Suzanne, along with those who torment her, the priests and nuns and Mother Superiors in The Nun average each other out to a rating of Two Church Steeples.

Friday, August 7, 2020

Nun Month Returns: Vision

Vision - From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen

An unfortunate feature of writing this blog is that  -- not infrequently -- I have to admit my ignorance. Yes, literally dozens of people are exposed to my lack of knowledge in many areas, particularly in church history. This another of those times.

While researching films for Nun Month, (my “research” consists of typing “nun” in the search bar at Amazon Prime and seeing what I find) I came across Vision. Its full title includes the name “Hildegard von Bingen,” who I had never heard of before. 

I looked her up and thought, “Why haven’t I heard of her before?” She was a Benedictine abbess who lived in Germany from 1098 through 1179, who was also a true polymath. To list some of her accomplishments:

  • Writer and composer: There are more surviving chants by Hildegard than by any other composer from the Middle Ages. She was one of the few composers from the time that wrote the words and music. She wrote Ordo Virtutum (“Book of the Rewards of Life”) which is perhaps the first musical morality and certainly the oldest surviving morality play. (In the film, an older nun worries about nuns acting in the play in costumes rather than their usual robes and habits. She is also concerned that the devil is given a chance in the play to make arguments for sin, though virtue eventually triumphs.)
  • Scientist: She is considered by many to be the founder of scientific natural history in Germany. Her work in this area seems to have been sparked by the herb garden and infirmary in her monastery. She studied how the herbs helped the sick and branched out into a broader study of botany. She also examined whether stones could be of use, so she wrote works on mineralogy. (The film portrays her convent’s work caring for the sick. Though medical knowledge at the time was, of course, limited, simply providing adequate rest and nutrition at that time made a great difference in the care of the ill.)
  • Sociologist: She also studied human nature, investigating sexuality, psychology, and physiology. Of course, Hildegard used Scripture to study human nature, but she also studied all available literature of the time, which included Greek and Roman examinations of the nature of man. Still, much of her understanding of human nature came from her work in ministry. (The film explores Hildegard’s interest in sexuality by telling a sad tale of interaction between one of her nuns and an unknown monk. As an abbess, she learns that one of her nuns is pregnant. She brings this news to the abbot who runs the monastery on the same grounds as the convent, and he rants about the seductive nature of the nuns. Of course, the monk responsible for the pregnancy is able to conceal his identity which is not a biological option for the nun. That nun commits suicide. This leads Hildegard to build a new convent far from the monastery so that her nuns can have a property of their own.)
  • Theologian: If Hildegard is remembered these days, it is most likely to be for her visions. At an early age, she experienced visions, what she wrote of as “the reflection of the living light.” She wrote three major works of theology. She received permission from Abbot Kuno to transcribe her visions. She wrote about 26 visionary experiences and her writing was approved by the pope during her lifetime. Prominent themes of her writings included creation, the relationship of the soul and the body, redemption, and heaven. And she illustrated her writing with her own art. (Much of the film portrays her battles to have her visions accepted by the male hierarchy.)
Again, how did I not know about this remarkable woman?

The 2009 film was written and directed by another remarkable woman, Margarethe von Trotta. She began her career as an actress, starring in films made by some of Germany’s greatest filmmakers such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Volker Schlondorff (she was also for a time married to Schlondorff and wrote screenplays for some of his films). Von Trotta began directing in 1975, working in feature films, television, and documentaries as well (including the acclaimed Searching for Ingmar Bergman.)

The film portrays the whole of Hildegard’s life, from when she entered a convent as a young girl (played by Stella Holzapfel) through decades of service first as a nun and then as an abbess (played by Barbara Sukowa), founding two convents, until her death the relatively old age (especially for the age) of 81.

The film offers a positive portrayal of convent life, but not through rose-covered glasses. Throughout the film, the Church is portrayed as being influenced and -- at times tainted by the politics of the era. The decisions of the church, and at times even Hildegard’s decisions, are influenced by considerations of power and finance.

But we still see the Church, and particularly an abbess, working to honor God and care for people. For this reason, we give to Hildegard of Bingen, Sibyl of the Rhine, our highest Movie Churches rating of Four Steeples.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Return of Nun Month

Nun Month Returns!

I spent a number of years as a youth pastor, and let me tell you: there are not a lot of films about youth pastors. I’m now a chaplain in a rescue mission, and there aren't many films about people in my current position. I’ve held other positions in churches, but no one has yet made Interim Pastor IV: This Time It’s Personal. (Surely if they make films about substitute teachers they could… Nevermind.)

Do you know who loves Hollywood loves to make movies about? Nuns. There are plenty of good reasons for this -- films based on true life nuns (Maria von Trapp, Helen Prejean) with amazing stories. I think sometimes filmmakers feel safer introducing religion through nuns that are cute and kind (think Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary). Sometimes comedy can be found in the very unique dress and lifestyle of nuns (whether that’s Whoopi disguised as a nun or men dressed as nuns). This month we’ll also be looking at some very bad and unwholesome reasons filmmakers have been interested in nuns (think of how often Nun = Frightening).

So this month, we will again be looking at films featuring nuns, If you missed Nun Month back in June 2018, you can catch up now! The films featured back then were:

Change of Habit - You would think Mary Tyler Moore as a nun would be enough, but they threw Elvis in the mix.

Hudson Hawk - Sometimes found on lists of all-time Hollywood bombs, people tend to remember this for Bruce Willis rather than Andie MacDowell as a nun.

The Little Hours - You know how I mentioned nuns aren’t always wholesome in films? A prime example here.

The Innocents - Powerful story about Polish nuns in World War II (fictional, but based on real events.)

The Letters - True story of everyone’s (except the late Christopher Hitchens) favorite nun.

Even after all of those, throughout August, there will be plenty more nuns to come.