The story- based on period French writing, Stendhal’s Roman Walks– focuses on a group of young Nuns living in a convent, after being sent away by their families to devote themselves to God. Despite the huge question mark surrounding the reason why most of the girls are where they are, in the opening scenes we are initially presented with the idea of the convent as a hive of prosperous activity within which everyone is happy; the women bake, sing, chat and laugh together and some impromptu jamming on the organ and violin causes enough excitement to whip the girls up into a veritable frenzy- setting their hearts a flutter so much so, they just have to dance and frolic about; dropping their duties in the process. That isn’t even factoring in what the sight of a delivery man chopping up a meat carcass in the kitchen does to some of the Sisters. Needless to say the girls appear to have led very sheltered lives, if this is all it takes to make them giddy. I say ‘appear’ because as with all good Nunsploitation flicks, all is not as it seems and our Nuns might not be as innocent as we are first led to believe.
The fuzzy glow of those initial moments are soon shattered by the scathing Mother Superior- Abbess Flavia Orsini (Gabriella Giacobbe)- who comes bursting in and begins violently wrestling the violin away from the player; thus setting the tone for matters to progress. The Abbess is the archetype of a parochial ‘ woman of God’, full of uptight pious sensibilities and housed in an impenetrable shell. Yet her wrath and frequent bellowing sermons on The Devil- and how he is in everything enjoyable, even dancing, or music- do little to restrain the girls from succumbing to their innate carnal desires.
Behind the scenes, away from Abbess’ all-seeing eye, we witness how the girls deal with their blossoming sexuality, each reacting in different ways. Devout Sister Clara (Ligia Branice) for example attempts to bury her desires in a love for Christ, praying constantly for his attention to fill the void. Sister Lucretia on the other hand isn’t satisfied with mere fantasy and takes a lover who she regularly sneaks in to the convent to get down and dirty under the weaving loom in the library- until they get caught that is. Olivia Pascal’s ( Bloody Moon (1981) character finds fashioning a home-made dildo from a piece of wood and having a bearded Christ drawn on the end of it is the perfect way to satiate her desires. While other inhabitants of the congregation indulge in night time exploration of their bodily impulses, or look to their fellow sisters for comfort and release.
But even the chaste Sister Clara is not immune to the instinctual need to succumb to pleasures of the flesh. When a young man, Rodrigo (Howard Ross, Werewolf Woman (1976),The New York Ripper (1982) ), is introduced to the convent by his Uncle, the Father Confessor (Mario Maranzana) , things all prove a bit too much for the young nun- sending her into crisis as she tries to resist the urge to liberate her desires, a road which ends in catastrophic results.
Within the narrative Borowczyk exploits some of his re-occurring themes; such as sexual repression and the exploration of an awakening sexuality; all while taking a wry, satirical look at the hypocrisy of religion. What starts as a fairly charming tongue in cheek, wink-wink at what nuns do in their private time soon descends into the usual Borowczyk territory. Matters end on a tragic note for most of those involved in the main plotline. The story is further laced with themes of murder, suicide, and plenty of blasphemous sexual activity to whet the appetite.
Centre stage is Borowczyk’s wife and long standing muse Ligia Branice as Sister Clara in one of the most interesting roles she would perform for her husband. While her cinematic fate follows the same fatalistic path as her work in Goto, Isle of Love (1968), and Blanche (1971), the journey she takes to get there takes on a bolder form for Behind Convent Walls. There is a lot of nudity involved for the actress, for which she seems completely uninhibited and the character of Sister Clara is more vocal and less passive than her previous Borowczyk film alter-egos. As the narrative propels her character towards her fate, Branice puts in a powerful performance; this is especially true for her climactic scenes.
Gabriella Giacobbe as the Mother Superior is equally as memorable for her furious portrayal of a particularly angry Nun intent on keeping control of the gaggle of hysterical and sexually curious young women under her care. You can’t really blame the woman’s attitude given the anarchy rife in her charges’ nocturnal behaviour; even so Giacobbe projects a hard character that provokes little sympathy.
The rest of the cast throws up some familiar names and faces for cult film fans. Marina Pierro for example plays Sister Veronica; Rollin fans will recognise the actress from her memorable co-lead in his warped zombie love tale The Living Dead Girl (1982). Pierro also plays a major part in Borowczyk’s Docteur Jekyll et les femmes (1981), as well as appearing in his 1983 Art of Love. Olivia Pascal shows no shame in her part as a lusty Nun who literally takes Jesus inside of her, via a suitably fashioned home-made sex toy- the insertion of which you get to see rather a lot of in the harder cut of this film. Apparently Paola Morra of Killer Nun (1978) is amongst the large ensemble throng that makes up the fresh-faced sisterhood, not that I have managed to spot her yet, even after a few viewings.
The story and themes ride tandem with some stunning art direction, for which the director exploits some key Italian talent to achieve the desired result. Moving away from France into Italian territory for the production means there is a distinct absence of Borowczyk’s usual period French provincial style- giving the film a slightly different look to the filmmaker’s other historical based pieces. The fantastic cinematography comes courtesy of Luciano Tovoli- who was responsible for Argento’s chef d’oeuvre Suspiria (1977).
It is important to start out by saying Behind Convent Walls isn’t your A-typical Nunsploitation. It becomes an artistic statement under the careful crafting of Borowczyk and within these terms could be considered an opus for Nun tinged erotic-arthouse cinema. But whether it really counts as enough of a straight up exploitation flick to fulfil the criteria for full- ‘nunsploitation’ is debatable. It’s not just the candy coating that asserts this, the rich tapestry that Borowczyk weaves with his- as usual-astounding art direction, but the fact that the story contains a depth that moves far beyond simple shock value. That doesn’t mean that Borowczyk is ever backwards at coming forward. Indeed there is enough female full frontal-complete with the director’s trademark love for pubic hair-and bare breasted women of the cloth on display, to please even the most pedantic of vintage smut fans. But, as with most of the director’s work, the sexual energy is built on foundations which appear to have far more to say than to just exist for the sake of titillation. This said, hardly five minutes go by when someone isn’t stripping off and the film is packed to the hilt with sexually graphic scenes.
Borowczyk uses the narrative to take ever increasing pot shots at his old foe Catholicism. Taking aim at the hypocrisy surrounding the Church and its teachings, the director revels in the material to make something delightfully funny- on one hand- but then in its darkest moments a powerful drama built from the ripples of what seem like, initially, innocent actions. There is a cleverness to this which is uniquely Borowczyk. The script is developed so that the final blow is only delivered once the viewer has fully slipped into a false sense of security. While a light smattering of a fantasy aspect, in the hint of possession or possible lunacy, further spices up the mix and comes as a welcome twist, leaving the ending on a slightly ambiguous note.
Again Borowczyk blends dark and light in perfect symmetry making a potent and provocative blend of themes. The director weaves a deep story and one that revels in gloriously sinful imagery to produce a masterpiece of beautifully blasphemous filth. The result is a film that infuses the perfect balance of dramatic energy, sizzling sexuality and dark comic relief- can I get an Amen to that?