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The authority of men
A UK region 0 DVD review of FLAVIA THE HERETIC by Gort
 

Flavia the Heretic (aka Flavia, la monaca musulmana, aka...oh too many to list here – check out the side bar) is one of those releases from UK DVD label Shameless that is being promoted as a sleazier work than it actually is. Its circa 1400 convent setting, rebellious central character and occasional doses of nudity and torture suggest a nunsploitation film, which it has more than once been misleadingly labelled. Some key elements are certainly in place, with our leading lady condemned to a convent life for her inappropriate thoughts. This is a convent with a strict behavioural code, a lecherous old nun and a younger, firm-breasted girl who gets turned on by the pagan tomfoolery of the spaced-out Tarantula cult and is condemned to be tortured to death as a punishment. By Flavia's dad, no less. Oh yes, and there's a new duke in the area (he's from France) who forces himself on a young female farm worker in the dirt of the pig sty.

Bawdy stuff indeed, but the exploitation angle is rarely pushed as hard as that yellow DVD cover (and for the record, that's not Flavia with the sword at her breast) might lead you to expect. The ageing Sister Agatha may want Flavia on her knees for some unspecified perversion, but she's repeatedly interrupted before she gets to try it. It's a similar story with the sexed-up Sister Livia, whose cult-inspired sexual frenzy goes no further than chest-baring and a fully-clothed grapple. Even Flavia's triumphant later coupling is not actually shown but alluded to by a before-and-after edit. The closest qualifying scenes have to be the torture of Sister Livia, which while brief is unpleasant enough to make even the slightly sensitive wince, and what looks to be the real castration of a horse, something that should have every male viewer crossing his legs and suddenly admiring the curtains.

But then Sister Flavia is no typical nunsploitation victim but a feminist progressive who openly challenges the very things that women in her position were expected to accept without question. Her prime target is male authority in society and the church, and she aims high, cross-examining a statue of Jesus on why he, the apostles and his holy father are all male. Her faith in her own religion soon crumbles when she takes a beating for running away with a good looking local Jew named Abraham, and her recurring memories/fantasies of a handsome enemy soldier killed by her father are made flesh when she claps eyes on suave Muslim invader Ahmed.

It's in Ahmed's bedchamber that Flavia finds liberation, then at his side the head of an invading Muslim force that ransacks the convent and dishes out sharp justice to those who have wronged her, her father included. Having killed the young soldier of her dreams, refused to intervene to stop Livia's torture and had Flavia herself soundly whipped for her jaunt with Abraham, he's top of her list of bastard men who have it coming, just a few notches ahead of the pigsty duke, who gets to find out just what it's like to be forcibly rogered by brawny blokes. There's a sting in the tail, of course – stories of rebellion set in a time when the church held ultimate power do not tend to end happily – but one that casts all religion in an equally barbaric and primitive light, a view driven home by the horrible final punishment meted out to this woman of reason by the agents of global superstition.

It's hard to really classify Flavia the Heretic as nunsploitation when even the more seemingly exploitative elements have clear dramatic purpose, each of them contributing to Flavia's development as a warrior for liberation and womanhood. Evocatively shot by Alfio Contini (whose later work includes Antonioni's Beyond the Clouds and the more recent Ripley's Game) and niftily edited by Ruggero Mastroianni (who bagged an award for his work on Francesco Rosi's 1984 version of Carmen), it's the performances that really carry it, none more so than Florinda Bolkan, who plays Flavia with the sort of unwavering conviction and drive that lifts the film out of its subgenre pigeonholing into the realms of historical drama.

sound and vision

A rare non-anamophic transfer from Shameless, the 1.85:1 letterboxed print is in otherwise rather good shape, with dust and damage reduced to a bare minimum and few complaints about contrast, colour or sharpness. Things drop off a little in darker scenes, when the black levels are not quite there and picture noise is more evident, but this is rare.

The mono soundtrack is not quite up to the picture, having an almost constantly background crackle and some minor distortion on louder music notes, but the dialogue is clear enough.

extra features

Only the theatrical trailer (1:27), which gives a fair flavour of the film itself, and the usual trailers for other Shameless releases.

summary

Flavia the Heretic may have the trappings of a nunsploitation film but it clearly aspires to higher things, and to a certain extent it achieves its aims through its assured technical handling and a fine central performance. It even dips its toes in surrealism during the later Flavia-led assault on the convent, with the image of a crop-haired, naked nun crawling inside a hanging cow's carcass momentarily giving the proceedings a flavour of Hieronymus Bosch. The lack of anamorphic enhancement on the transfer is a shame, but otherwise the DVD looks rather good and represents another intriguing release for the Shameless label.

Flavia the Heretic
Flavia, la monaca musulmana
Flavia
Flavia the Rebel Nun
Flavia, Priestess of Violence
Flavia: Heretic Priestess
The Heretic
The Muslim Nun
The Rebel Nun

Italy France 1974
96 mins
director
Gianfranco Mingozzi
starring
Florinda Bolkan
María Casares
Claudio Cassinelli
Anthony Higgins
Spiros Focás
Raika Juri
Jill Pratt
Laura De Marchi

DVD details
region 0
video
1.85:1 letterboxed
sound
Dolby mono 2.0
languages
English
subtitles
none
extras
Trailer
distributor
Shameless
release date
28 January 2008
review posted
17 February 2008

See all of Gort's reviews