Though it usually results in a product that few people can actually enjoy, I find there is there is nothing as cinematically sweet as seeing a movie that has been actually banned, recalled, or pulled from the market because someone somewhere decided you shouldn’t be seeing it. From the STAR WARS CHRISTMAS SPECIAL to Disney’s SONG OF THE SOUTH all the way down to the rare uncut version of DEATH WISH 2 (only available in Greece) I adore such films and have made it a habit to collect as many of them as I can. VISIONS OF ESCTASY is just such a film as it was originally banned in the UK for the crime of blasphemy (the only such film to ever be grounded for such a reason in that country). Because this antiquated (and highly subjective) law was repealed in 2008, for the first time those of us in America can marvel at this unholy fusion between eroticism and religion in the pure, uncut form of the original now pressed to DVD. While I am not admittedly the biggest fan of religious sexploitation (I’m a Catholic school survivor and tend to be put off by movies that are openly disrespectful to devoutly conservative peoples of whatever faith), but, by the basic laws of all things exploitation, this is a valid film that obeys the time honored formula of being as troubling to the countenance as it is maddening to the libido. If you like being tormented with unrated nudity while messages of spirituality, faith, and the usual hypocrisy that belies such matters occasionally slap your face like the angry hand of God itself, well then, you may consider the main feature on this disk to be the “saving grace” to the long irrelevant genre of Nunsploitation if not a deeper film than sexploitation fans usually get.
The VISIONS OF ECSTACY DVD is actually a small collection of films by Nigel Wingrove, an English director who seems to have a “hard on” for women of the cloth, to put it crudely. While the films range in duration from a few minutes to over an hour, I will do my best to provide some kind of synopsis but it should be known that many of these short vignettes are devoid of dialogue, very artsy and open to interpretation which makes my interpretation of them ultimately open to interpretation itself. Such is the case ironically, whenever religion or nude art films with little or no spoken dialogue are discussed.
AXEL (7 mins - 1988)
A creepy underworld tableau where two women kiss (one naked, one clothed) meanwhile a brooding, haunting instrumental aria plays perpetually in the background. In moments the scantily clad woman gives the naked woman a giant silver translucent rooster headpiece then leads her down an underground fire lit crypt only so she may be groped by another woman wearing a giant silver horses head. Nudity and sexless (yet somehow R rated) touching ensues and eventually the first woman ditches this bizarre scene of animal husbandry run amuk and runs off to a corner only to fall prostate and fall ill. An angel with S+M inspired black patent leather gown, visits her at once, and graces her by gently closing her eyes forever (killing her). I found it to be a statement about the ultimate price of temptation; a living pornographic illustration about the old “the wages of sin is death” philosophy, but it was just too beautiful, high concept and abstract to be taken as a serious restatement on the old “laugh now, cry later” dynamic of sin and punishment in most traditional faiths.
FAUSTINE (2 Mins - 1990)
This consists of a close-up of a couple making love while a heavily chopped reading of the poem “Faustine” by Algernon Charles Swinburne is read by the partially clad female seductress in separate takes. Faustine herself played by Eileen Daly looks like a cross between Batman’s Poison Ivy and yet is gifted with the prose and speech pattern of a Shakespearian villainess, only completely evil and soulless sounding in her monotone delivery. The poem “Faustine” in its complete form is actually the story of a particularly evil woman, even though several generalizations are made about women in general as being creatures of manipulation and ruin, created by the devil to do exactly that. As portrayed here in this nude, brooding short I can’t decide whether this version is a warning to men everywhere or as something of a living visual torment designed for us, all set to more brooding percussion. This is a perfect cinematic illustration of razor thin line between “evil” and “sexy” explored so frequently in the nunsploitation genre.
SACRED FLESH (72 Mins - 2000)
Just slightly less than a full length film this is actually the most normal feature on the disk. Mother Superior has apparently gone insane and spends all her time sequestered in her chambers in deep prayer but somehow she isn’t alone… Apparently she is keeping company with none other than Mary Magdalene herself, who she quarrels with for the duration of the film about the paradoxes of faith, virtues, chastity and sexuality. Even though Mother Superior is chaste, virtuous and by all means uncorrupted, the things that other nuns have confessed to her in confidence indicate the convent is actually a thriving hotbed of all sorts of moral improprieties involving S+M play, masturbation, lesbianism and even sex with the priests. Much of the duration of this film is filled with Mother Superior sitting at the throne of Mary Magdalene herself, quarreling with the feminine avatar of temptation incarnate about the nature of purity, meanwhile every few minutes an unrated sex scene illustrates one of the bad things that Mother Superior has learned about her fellow women of faith, and what is really going on in God’s House after lights out. While this film highlights several classic hypocrisies of faith, if not the eternal struggle about how difficult it is for one to strive to be a creature of light when we are all creatures of flesh by our most basic design, I chose to see it as a living, illustrated fever dream of a virtuous Nun who went insane from having to deal with the secret corruption inherent in her cloister, if not humankind in general. It may be that the long ponderous scenes where Mother Superior talks extensively about the nature of good and evil will be lost on anyone who never had to sit through mass in a Christian church, yet all fans of Nunsploitation will be in heaven here, because the women who played fallen sisters in the short vignettes were absolutely beautiful if not patently unbelievable as wayward women of the cloth, and then again maybe it’s just all the boob jobs and belly rings on parade in the love scenes. Similarly, some of the demon costumes were cheap, goofy, kind of unconvincing as well, more inspired by the standards of community theater than a dress code befitting the Prince of Darkness. Even though it is atmospheric, beautiful and perhaps too thought provoking for an unrated erotic work, if they could have put just a little more polish into some of the creature/character effects they could have made something that would have truly given nunsploitation nuts the true cinematic definition of a guilty pleasure and would never been forgotten.
VISIONS OF ECSTASY (19 mins - 1989)
This is the story, (the interpretive dance really) of the famed story of St Avila of Assisi a 17th century nun who believed that Christ repeatedly came down to her in bodily form. While another example of a moody, bombastic, instrumental synth theme blares introspectively, repeatedly like a big musical question mark, St Teresa of Avila pokes holes in her hands with a giant iron nail giving herself stigmata, she then performs an interpretive dance playing in her own blood and knocks down some candles, thrashing slowly dramatically about in time to the music which sounds like a mix between an eighties sci-fi chase theme and a Dracula suite. Eventually she becomes topless and starts crawling…but where, or to whom? She then discovers a naked woman (her “psyche” as listed in the credits) and starts making unrated love to her. But wait, there is more. It turns out she is actually having sex with Jesus all along who is fastened to the cross. High concept, beautiful and probably the most blasphemous thing in the world to behold when taken at face value, I chose to see it as a symbolic representation of the inherent divinity of physical, if not sexual pleasure. Whatever your take on this, it is a truly a 19 minute spectacle that will either raise your spirit or damn it for all eternity.
This might sound terribly ironic of me to say after having banned for its unconventional use of religious iconography and the complete sexualized depiction of Christian notions, but I feel this film will find greatest resonance with folks who have some sort of basic knowledge regarding Christian dogma especially the practices of the Catholic Church, even if only so they can alternatively feel outraged then aroused every other moment. To all others this will be a serviceable, beautiful, fleshy art film, but if this is all you really desire from a work of erotica, there are quicker, dirtier things which will strike you as far less ponderous and “preachy”. I however loved this film; it was a multi-dimensional, thought provoking, sexy little collection that had a little bit of brains and a whole lot of soul. While it is most certainly offensive according to the sacrosanct respect which all religions demand from their believers, to deny the technical mastery of this work would be a sin all its own.
Special features include interviews with Nigel Wingrove, a brief documentary about the sub-genre of nun-sploitation, a disk-based 36 page essay on the censorship and some outtakes of VISIONS OF ECSTASY itself.