Starring: Ligia Branice, Howard Ross, Marina Pierro, Gabriella Giacobbe, Rodolfo Dal Pra, Loredana Martinez
Inside a convent, a dictatorial Mother Superior tightly controls her nuns — or at least attempts to. This loosely plotted film is an adaptation of Stendhal’s novel Roman Walks and spends much of its running time following scantily clad nuns as they succumb to desire. The Mother Superior tries to suppress the girls' inevitable sexuality, frequently catches them in the act, and then punishes them. This is mostly presented as a series of vignettes featuring different ways to misbehave: masturbating with a violin, naughty yoga, a dildo with Jesus's face painted on the end, and so on. There is also a romantic subplot and a murky twist where a disturbed sister poisons several people, including herself.
Walarian Borowczyk is, perhaps, an acquired taste. The type of crowd drawn to his early arthouse films was inevitably alienated by his later erotic works like Immoral Tales and The Beast. And then many cult film fans delighted by those two were perhaps confused by his follow up films, The Story of Sin and La marge, two gloomy, arty classics about doomed love. While he seems to have jumped back on the cult film train with Behind Convent Walls, anyone expecting a run-of-the-mill nunsploitation film is likely to be quite shocked, though hopefully pleased -- though I don't expect anyone to approach the same levels of rapturous enthusiasm that I feel for the film.
Behind Convent Walls is nunsploitation at its core, but it is also so much more. Where some of the genre’s directors like Joe D'Amato focus on the sex, violence, and sacrilegious material inherent in erotic nun movies, Borowczyk somehow transcends this to effectively recycle one of his beloved themes: the inevitably and irresistibility of human sexuality. Like La marge, the film has a deceptively simple plot that conveys a surprising amount of emotion through the passions of some loosely sketched minor characters. With some sort of directorial sorcery, Borowczyk emphasizes the emotional aspect of natural, innocent sexuality seeping (OK, gushing) through the cracks of a disciplined culture like Roman Catholicism -- fittingly, this is his only Italian production -- specifically in the physical and emotional pressure cooker of a convent.
While the strict Mother Superior does all she can to suppress sexuality and sin in her young charges, the sisters innocently and exuberantly display a talent for fun, mischief and, unsurprisingly, masturbation. What sets Behind Convent Walls apart from other nunsploitation films is that most of these sexual acts are presented as natural, inevitable acts not associated with sin; even more shockingly, they are often committed out of love for Jesus. Yes, you heard me. They whack off for Christ. Which is, I suspect, why Behind Convent Walls has suffered extensively from some damaging censorship. Most Borowczyk retrospectives and film festivals have neglected it, I assume, because of this message. While it is one thing to say that corrupt, evil, immoral, or insane nuns can indulge in sex, it is another thing entirely to say that they commit the same acts in the name of innocence, affection, instinct, and, above all, love for God.
The casting here is also excellent. This marks the final appearance of Borowczyk’s dazzlingly beautiful first muse, his wife Ligia Branice, who is in fine form and gives one of her most lively performances. It’s also Borowczyk’s first time working with actress Marina Pierro, the Italian beauty who would star is most of the films in the second half of his career. Also keep your eyes peeled for cult movie figures like Howard Ross as the priest's charming nephew — he also happens to be the man with the missing finger from New York Ripper. I'm probably the only person who cares about this, but there he is alongside Gabriella Giacobbe (Keoma), Mario Maranzana (Lady of the Camelias), Alex Partexano (And the Ship Sails On, Zeder), and many others.
I'm reviewing the uncut, PAL region 2 disc, though I really hope something better (and fully restored with lots special features) gets released sometime soon. There are some extras here, such as a nice, though too short documentary from some of Borowczyk's biggest fans, most of whom seem to be other film critics. Regardless of the DVD edition, the film comes with the highest possible recommendations and it’s one of my favorites. Though I’m at the point where nearly half of Borowczyk’s catalog is on that list, Behind Convent Walls and I have had a long term romance. Having the opportunity to see it in the theater a few months ago at the Lincoln Center Borowczyk retrospective was one of the highlights of the last five years of my life.
P.S. I’ve seen the film a number of times over the years and I remember a particularly beautiful lesbian sex scene taking place in the convent’s garden. But when I saw the film at the Lincoln Center, it was missing. Did I imagine this? Or just splice in a memory of a scene from another film? If I find the answer, I will let you know.