Thursday, November 20, 2008


My take on an interesting Italian feature that is far too often carelessly filed in the "nun-sploitation" folder:

Sat., 19 April, 2008

I'd read about Gianfranco Mingozzi's FLAVIA THE HERETIC (1974) for many years, but I only got to see it early last year, when I went on an insane movie-buying binge, and, for whatever reason, it has been on my mind lately, though it's been some months since I watched it.

It's a striking film, set in Italy somewhere around the 15th century. Definitely Medieval-era (though I don't think any specific year is ever given). This being the time of Christian ascendancy, the age is a time of utter madness, and the movie captures this very well.

Flavia, our protagonist (Florinda Bolkan), is a young lady who encounters a fallen Muslim on a battlefield. He seems a warm and intriguing fellow, and she's immediately taken with him. Her father, a soldier of a a family of some standing, comes along, almost immediately, and murders the wounded man right before her eyes. But she'll continue to see him in her dreams.

Her father ships her off to a convent that seems more like an open-air insane asylum--the residents, so harshly repressed by unyielding Medieval Christianity, slowly go mad. Flavia comes under the influence of one of the nuttier nuns. But in a mad world, only the sane are truly mad, and this sociopathic sister clearly recognizes the insanity around her. Her take on the times in which they live strikes a chord with Flavia, who, being young and apparently sheltered, is beginning to question everything about this world in which she finds herself trapped.

The movie is unflinching in its portrayal of that world, showcasing a lot of unpleasantness. We see a horse gelded, a lord rape a peasant woman in a pig-sty, the pious torture of a young nun. Through it all, Flavia observes and questions, rejecting, eventually, the Christian dogma that creates such a parade of horrors in terms that would gain the movie some criticism over the years for seeming anachronistic. I disagree with that criticism. Flavia's views, though sometimes expressed in ways that vaguely mirror, for example, then-contemporary feminist commentary (the movie was made in 1974), revolve around what are really pretty obvious questions. It is, perhaps, difficult to believe she could be so much of a fish out of water in her own time, but that's the sort of minor point it doesn't do to belabor. Flavia is written in such a way to allow those of our era, or of any era, to empathize with her plight. As well as it works, getting bogged down on such a matter would be missing the forest for the trees.

Flavia is heartened when the Muslims arrive, invading the countryside by sea, and she finds, in their leader, a new version of the handsome Islamist who still visits her dreams. Smitten with her almost immediately, he allows her to virtually lead his army, and Flavia becomes a Joan of Arc figure in full battle-gear, directing the invaders to pull down Christian society and wreak vengeance upon all those she's seen commit evil.

Is she the herald of a new and better world? She may think so, but Muslims of that era weren't big on feminism, either, as she soon learns the hard way. As they say, meet the new boss...

This is really just a thumbnail of some of the things that happen in FLAVIA THE HERETIC. The movie is quite grim, and with a very downbeat, direly depressing ending. Not a mass-audience movie at all, to be sure. It's quite good, though, for all its ugliness, and doesn't belong on the "nunsploitation" pile on which it is often carelessly thrown.



  1. I agree that it's very striking and I always find Florinda compelling but it's so completely despressing and grim, as you say, for me that I find it unwatchable. Even though I am myself a filmmaker, or have been in the past, and know it's all faked and it's only cinema I still find it too oppressive somehow. I guess I can't distance myself emotionally and probably it's linked to my own issues with periodic depression/anxiety.

    LAST HOUSE ON THE BEACH also had this effect on me, and there are others.

  2. The relentlessly grim nature of the film is probably one of the big reasons I liked it so much; there's no hope at all in it for someone like a Flavia. It gets hit for being anachronistic, but, in this regard, it's emotionally true to the time and place in which it's set.

    Unfortunately, this truth comes with that strong alienating effect on viewers. But, while this doesn't help sell tickets or DVDs (and in fact probably actively hinders such endeavors), it's also, as I see it, a plus for the movie. It means it's effective. The stifling atmosphere of madness of hopelessness that troubles so many viewers is intentional. To the degree that it works, the movie works.