Although the lurid collage of images—a nude, self-flagellating nun; two sisters sharing a sensuous kiss underneath their secretive habits—on the cover of Argent Films' new DVD release of the 1973 English language version of Italian French co-production, "The Nun and the Devil", may appear to indicate otherwise, this is no tawdry trawl through the murky soft core recesses of nunsploitation: on the contrary —this is a film that takes its lusty intrigues and lip-quivering Sapphic assignations very seriously indeed! Under the steady hand of director Domenico Paolella, the movie showcases the film-making talents of many of the cream of 1970's Euro-cinema: Pier Paolo Pasolini's director of photography Guiseppe Ruzzolini brings a luxuriant, clear opulence to the visual appearance of the film; the rousing orchestral score by Piero Piccioni is sweepingly conducted by the great Bruno Nicolai; and Paolella himself (previously noted for a series of Peplum outings made during the 1960s) controls affairs with a style that results in a un-hysterical measured tone that tends towards the clinical. Slow, deliberate tracking shots and carefully composed frames often illustrate in spectacular wide-angle glory the ornate architecture of some picturesque locations, the grandiose production design of Claudio Cinni's sets, and the detailed period costumes of the nobles and church officials, designed by Wayne Finkelman. This film is more Fellini than Franco—never even attempting the erotic delirium of a Borowczyk, never-mind the lo-fi out-of-focus exploitations of —God bless him!—uncle Jess.
This DVD features the "restored version"—the longest available version running at 100 minutes, which has been re-edited from the Italian master. But still, one shouldn't expect more than the occasional peep at some nuns' naughty bits: for the most part, Paolella is coy in depicting the sex-hungry passions of the various rivals who're battling it out for the title of Mother Superior within the festering dark cloisters of the convent of Sant' Arcangelo near Naples. Instead, the Machiavellian conniving of the Church and the power-politics behind the appointment of a new Mother Superior—whose candidates are each promoted by influential rival families—form the main focus of the plot. (Yes! there's a plot!) If it were not for the clinically presented torture scenes at its climax, this film could easily have passed with little more than a 15 rating: it's mostly all heavy breathing, longing looks, slowly unfurled stockings and romantic, soft-focus clasping of hands through the convent fence!
With the impending death of Mother Lavinia (Maria Cumani Quasimodo) at the convent of Sant' Arcangelo, several nuns find themselves forced into competing for the soon-to-be-vacant title, since the appointment also comes with the power to assign ownership of some gold mines, recently discovered in the New World, to whom-ever-they-so-wish! With so much wealth at stake, a lot of people are interested in the outcome. Mother Julia (Anne Heywood) and Mother Carmela (Claudia Gravy) are the two main competitors; and each have influential aristocratic family members working for them behind the scenes on the understanding that they will get control of the mining assets once the powerful Mother Superior post is achieved. Mother Julia's relative, Don Carlos (Peir Paolo Capponi) has furnished the Archbishop of Niece with a handsome donation for the Church in order to gain her the title; however, Carmela's rival also has a powerful relative— and so the only way to secure the title is to discredit her (Carmela is known to indulge in not-so-secret night-time copulation's in her quarters with her male lover) by exposing her sinful activities. Don Carlos also wants the hand in marriage of Mother Julia's virgin niece Isabella (Ornella Muti) — a novice, recently sequestered at the convent by her cruel family; and so Julia cynically engineers a meeting between them by giving Isabella a message to deliver to Don Carlos' villa. Isabella has a secret passion of her own though, and uses the opportunity to meet up with him in the countryside, while disguised as a boy (resulting in the film's best line of dialogue when they are discovered petting by a farmer out grazing his sheep: 'Hey you two! Dirty boys! Take your unnatural acts somewhere else ... and stay away from my sheep!'). Meanwhile, the exposure of Carmela's behaviour results in Mother Julia becoming the only real contender for the title, but the suspicions of one of the Archbiship's cardinals are also aroused: though the Church might be perfectly happy to accept Don Carlos' large donation, it also doesn't want to lose the assets provided by the gold mines; and suspecting a deal has been done between Julia and Don Carlos, the Archbishop's inquisitor is dispatched to Sant' Arcangelo in order to expose Mother Julia's double-dealing as well as investigate Carmela's acts. It turns out that there is plenty more dirt to be exposed: Mother Julia has a lesbian lover - Sister Chiara (Tinto Brass regular, Martine Brochard) and it is not long before the Inquisition uncovers the full extent of Mother Julia's hypocrisy.
Although beautiful to look at, the film (at least in its English language version) often feels like cheap romantic fiction; Carmela's secret sex-sessions with her rugged lover, Mother Julia's sensuous lesbian gropings with sister Chiara, and Isabella's attempt to avoid the lusty designs of Don Carlos, are all pitched at too broad a level of lip-smacking soap opera; with the contrived script often lending events an unintended air of bathos. It's a world away from the pessimistic pornographic nihilism of a Jess Franco picture. Only when the Inquisition get their torture devices out near the end, does the film come close to living-up to its nunsploitation tag — and then only for a few minutes. Anne Heywood (the former Miss Britain) is a fine statuesque beauty and does an impressive job as the scheming Mother Julia (indeed, all the nuns look like gorgeous models, and all sport trendy early-'70s hairstyles beneath their habits!) but her death scene, a self-inflicted termination by poison (after delivering an excoriating condemnation of the Church), is almost comically protracted. The one area where the film does succeed is in its skilful manipulation of the viewer's loyalties throughout, until one is no longer sure which side to cheer for. Mother Julia is undoubtedly a grotesque monster despite her great beauty but, in a way, she is nothing but the pawn and creation of wider societal forces that simply cannot be escaped. It is notable that the Inquisition's verdict at the end has been carefully formulated in order to preserve the Church's power, influence and wealth rather than to see true justice done. This idea comes over very well.
The DVD from Argent films has to be judged a bit of a disappointment, despite the film being featured in its fullest form. Colours are washed out, the image looks drab and the widescreen transfer is non-anamorphic. The English language audio track is also quite noisy, with a constant low-level crackling audible. There are absolutely no extras whatsoever included!