Although it appears as though it were conceived as a large-scale historical epic, the Italians obviously do such things a little differently from most people — or at least they did in the mid-70s. Gianfranco Mingozzi's infamous "Flavia The Heritic" is full of epic battle sequences and impressive large-scale sets — all delivered in earthy, sweeping photography — but is infused also with the trappings of the then-popular 'nunsploitation' genre. Post Ken Russell, and his controversial "The Devils", such fare was no longer confined to the margins of the exploitation market and "Flavia ..." proves a particularly potent entry in terms of gruesome content: sexualised torture (an erect nipple is burned and then sliced off in graphic detail), hallucinatory 'blasphemous' imagery, beheadings, castration, animal abuse, rape, orgies — you name it, "Flavia ..." has it all in abundance. Why then does the film drag so?
The film is one of that breed of infamous exploitation 'classics' that like to give the impression that they are aiming at higher things, or at least that's how it presents itself. While full of female nudity and the usual obsessive clichés about sexually pent-up nuns, its makers actually want us to see the film as a meditation on feminism and the ubiquity of patriarchy. Actually, it does (almost inadvertently) make some interesting observations on the difficulties of a feminist viewpoint actually becoming warped and corrupted by the all-pervasive language of masculinity that defines its expression; but most of this gets lost amid the heaving wimples and bared breasts. This is ultimately very much of a piece with other glossy, semi-pornographic popular 70s schlock of the time such as "Emmanuelle": pseudo-philosophical ramblings fill in the (lengthy) gaps between bursts of soft-core rutting in the convent grounds (or even the pig sty in one case!).
The distinctive visage of Florinda Bolkan ("Don't Torture A Duckling") provides the resolute face of Flavia Gaetani. Packed off to a convent in 14th Century Italy by her warrior father, Flavia still dreams of the time she witnessed him behead a handsome soldier when she was but a girl. Now trapped in her arid surroundings, the recollection takes on semi-erotic connotations in her memory; the beauty of the murdered soldier contrasts vividly with the ignoble masculine authority of her tyrannical father. Flavia is attracted to a Jewish intellectual (Anthony Higgins) and the two attempt to run away together; but they are soon hunted down and returned to the convent where Flavia is tortured for her transgressions. Witnessing many examples of male authority being used to subjugate women in and around the convent grounds, Flavia begins to question her religion and its uses by powerful men in society. When an invading cult of Muslims calling themselves the Tarantula sect invade and take over the convent (this event is based on the historical siege on Ontario), Flavia joins with their leader both ideologically (in rejecting Christianity) and sexually! Once revenge against her father and the Duke has been exacted though, she realises that one form of male aggression may have been swapped for another.
The film proceeds always at a languid pace in disjointed, episodic fashion, never really elaborating sufficiently on the potential themes at its disposal, eventually settling into a conventional euro exploitation rut of 'shock' dreamlike tableaux (a naked nun cavorting inside the gutted carcass of a cow) and soft-core orgy montages which, nevertheless, have their titillating effects dissipated somewhat by the vapid pacing. Shameless, naturally enough, play up the exploitation elements in their packaging of the film, but anyone hoping for an unbridled feast of non-stop sleaze will probably find themselves interminably bored for most of the film's running time. Florinda Bolkan treats the role with utmost seriousness though and brings some degree of emotional resonance to the show, despite the best efforts of some of the male 'villains' who come across as cut-out Italian moustache twirling stereotypes.