[Liebesbriefe einer portugiesischen Nonne]
West Germany / Switzerland 1977
Reviewed By-Kit Gavin Directed by Jess Franco Starring Susan Hemingway, William Berger, Anna Zanatti and Herbert Fux. Region 0 NTSC Released through: V.I.P. [Switzerland]
Following on from the trend set by Ken Russell’s The Devils, and a stream of Italian exploitation movies, crudely termed "nunsploitation" by fans of the genre, it wasn’t long before Spaniad Jess Franco got on the band wagon and created and directed his own entries into the field. The nusploitation is generally an extension of the crude, yet perversely enjoyable cycle of exploitation mostly teasing or pornographic films called "Women in Prison" or "WIP" (a play on words in itself – wip=whip) which have been in circulation since the late 1950’s. However by the time the more lenient 1970’s arrived, the WIP genre had been embraced by low budget European directors [such as Rino Di Silvestro], and production houses [such as Eurocine]. There was a plentiful selection of attractive actresses and starlet, more than willing to take their clothes off for the camera, and be put in sleazy or exploitative situations, and so the genre was cemented into the annals of sleazy film history.
This transmuted into other genres, such as the nazisploitaion movies [again inspired by the success of The Night Porter and Don Edmunds’ imfamous and buxom she wolf Ilsa] and the nunsploitation field, which included the usual Sapphic gropings and attractive female nudity usually coupled with an inquisition and or torture. Torture and the mediaeval element was an off shoot of the success of titles such as Witchfinder General [a.k.a. The Conqueror Worm] and Mark of the Devil – which was aped in itself by Jess Franco during his collaboration with Harry Alan Towers, in The Bloody Judge. In essence, the nunsploitation films and the women in prison generally have many parallels. The walls of the cloister are as much a prison as a jail house, a young girl is sent there against her wishes, the corrupt mother superior/head warden, usually with a lesbian yearning for the young inmate/novice, punishments and torture, etc. Also there was the Catholic angle to be taken into consideration, as these films were an implicit revolt against the Catholic hierarchy in the countries where they were produced and would have been as being quite scandalous in their day, films no one would admit to frequenting (yet were…), and in Spain were generally banned or heavily censored.
Franco’s first foray into this genre was The Demons, which is more a take on Ken Russell’s The Devils than a genuine nunsploitation film, and features the attractive Britt Nicholls in the title role. Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun returns to the roots of the nunsploitation genre with full abandon and sleaze, given that some of the atrocities on screen are stronger than most of the Italian counterparts.
The film’s storyline is quite simple. Pretty 15 year old Marie Rosalea [Susan Hemingway], a girl of low birth, is sent to a convent of Serra d’Ares, by her trusting mother upon the advice of Father Vicente [William Berger], who convinces that her daughter is basking in the ways of sin owing to her attraction to a local boy, Cristobal. Upon her arrival, the trusting Marie is checked to ensure her virginity is intact by the head of the convent, Mother Alma [Anna Zanetti], who prefers the title of Supreme Priestess to being called Mother Superior. Marie is forced to submit to punishment after confessing her sins to Vicente, who masturbates loudly as she details her sins to him. Two other young novices try to seduce Marie with their games. Not before long Marie suffers numerous humiliations and torture, whilst it transpires not unsurprisingly that the convent is actually a coven of Satanists, with Mother Alma frequently praying to the Devil. As well as enduring torture under the auspices of it being penance for her sins, Marie has nightmares of being abused by a hairy handed man, smearing her body in blood and beating her. She writes to her mother, imploring her help, however her letter is intercepted by her captors and she is made to walk on a bed of thorns. Marie is also later raped by men, by the other nuns, and even by Devil himself gets a go [a frenzied Herbert Fux]. However she is lead to believe that all the atrocities which are happening to her are just fevered fantasies and nightmares. She tries to escape, and upon her flight she tells what has happened to her to the local Mayor, who doesn’t believe her. He returns her to the convent, however the events which have been going on have attracted the attention of the nearby Inquisitors, who are situated near the convent. Praying for divine intervention, Marie writes a letter to God, which fortunately falls into the hands of the Prince of Portugal. Before that however she is taken by the Inquisirors, tortured more and is condemned to be burnt at the stake as a witch.
The film can be seen as playing on two levels, there are attempts at arthouse with mood, atmosphere, good acting and an attractive classically themed score by Walter Baumgartner. Complimenting this Baroque score too is an attractive use of locations, the Portuegese countryside and the severe Gothic nunnery. However this is counter balanced by remarkably sleazy moments, such as Hemingway’s face being hit by semen, together with much lesbian gropings which is accompanied by the nuns worshipping the Devil. From the outset it is obvious to even the simplest minded viewer that something is amiss within the convent but none the less the devil worshipping scenes are laid on thick. The frenzied hysteria, although structured differently, recalls to mind the original role model of the title (viz. Ken Russell’s The Devil’s) , but imbued with an uniquely Jess Franco flavour. There is no doubt also some social commentary here about corruption within the Catholic Church as well as by those in power, but most of these is over glossed and clouded over by the plentiful display of flesh and torture found herein.
In the lead role, played by the young and inexperienced Susan Hemingway, is delivered superbly by the young actress, performing her role with suitable angst, anguish, sensitivity and innocence. Hemingway was apparently only in her mid teens at the time the film was made, yet despite her vulnerability and innocence and frequent nudity, is surprisingly strong in her performance and in character. She also illicits sympathy from the viewer with the tears she sheds from her clear blue eyes, and there are genuine pangs of hope for her safety when she writes her letter to God. A comparison might be drawn between Hemingway and the similarly attractive doe-eyed but considerably less talented Romina Power, who was the eponymous heroine of Franco’s Justine [a.k.a. Deadly Sanctuary]. Franco has often in interviews complained about Power’s lack of acting prowess and it is interesting to see how Hemingway, who has some similarity to Power in appearance and presence, is delivers a substantially more winning and convincing performance, despite her lack of acting heritage in her genes. Certainly the hard boiled Lina Romay, by then Franco’s companion, would have been suited for the role given atrocities she had been made to perform by Franco previously, however with her hard face and cold dark eyes, the innocence, sympathy and vulnerability would not have been there.
Equally superb is William Berger, an Austrian actor, educated in the United States has appeared in most every genre of cinema from exploitation to Westerns. His performance as Father Vicente is superb, as the sleazy priest, perhaps once a good man but now fallen from grace, who harbours sordid desires for the young novice, masturbating loudly for all to hear, as she tells of her sexual dalliances to him during confession, with her one time love. From the start we know of the priest’s corruption, exploiting and taking Marie’s mothers savings as a dowry for her daughter, whilst convincing her that he is saving her daughter’s soul. He corrupts and abuses under the pretence of being a man of God together with his evil sidekick, Mother Alma (Anna Zanetti), another quality piece of casting, who is one of Franco’s more entertainingly perverse female villains, up there with Brigitte Lahaie in Faceless and Ajita Wilson in Sadomania, as the Satanic high priestess, without having to resort to wild over acting and complimenting the pathos of her two co-stars.
Jess Franco as a director has often been criticised given his haphazard approach at times but here, given the remarkably sleazy subject matter, and aided by extremely proficient performances from the cast members, good framing, higher production values than usual and a soaring score, has created an exploitation masterpiece, bordering on arthouse qualities were it not for all the torture and perversity which takes place on screen. Franco’s films, especially those with Dietrich has often been criticised as having been shot fast, with an over insistance on zooms, and more often than not, two titles being shot at once or back to back, with not even the players being aware that they were appeaing in more than one title. There are a few of Franco’s trademarks as a film maker and director, scattered throughout the film, such as in the torture sequences and the perhaps incessant close-ups of female pubic hair. Although, thankfully, for once it is not Lina Romay’s pubic region and vagina nor are we "treated" to Romay playing with it as she did in other films both for Franco and for producer Dietrich (including the awful Rolls Royce Baby). In fact, Lina Romay doesn’t appear in the film at all (although she was cast in a film of the same title, a pseudo "remake", shortly afterwards by Jorge Grau.)
Extras include the original theatrical trailer [in unsubtitled German], interviews with producer Edwin Dietrich and Herbert Fux [in German], Jess Franco [in his own heavily accented English] and Lina Romay [in French]. No interview however with Susan Hemingway, it would be interesting to hear her thoughts as she continued to work with Franco on other titles until the early 80’s. There is also a documentary about the restoration of the titles on the VIP label, narrated in German [subtitled however], also found on other releases, which is interesting and informative. There is also a stills gallery and trailers for other titles in the VIP/Jess Franco collection.
Despite the bizarre title, as there are no love letters to be found here, the film is stylish and is one of Franco’s better works and is an approachable title for those unfamiliar with Franco’s work or looking for titles to watch when viewing Franco’s, at times, hit and miss extensive catalogue of work, which he has been directing, writing and producing since the late 1950’s. The work itself is liberally adapted from Mariana Alcoforado's "Lettres Portugaises", written in the 17th century, although the film seems to owe more to the works of the Marquis de Sade, a favourite of Franco’s. Given the high production values, a rousing score, good atmosphere, and the film being taken from the original elements [provided by producer Dietrich] this is one of the better Franco titles on the market and one of his most accessible, and sleazy yet not overtly trashy and pornographic works. Worth picking up even with the somewhat hefty price tag, to Franco aficionados and Franco newbies alike.
N.B. The film has also been released in the UK by Anchor Bay Entertainment [UK]. Unfortunately, at the behest of the UK state censor, both the film and the trailer have been severely cut. The film has been cut by some 6 minutes and 15 seconds, and the trailer by 14 seconds. Most of these cuts were to remove much of Hemingway’s nudity owing to her young age, and as a result most of the scenes of torture are missing. Given that the film was originally rejected when it was submitted for theatrical release in 1979, and that Women in Cell Block 9 [also starring Hemingway] was rejected outright when submitted earlier this year, British fans should be somewhat grateful that the film has seen a release in the UK at all. Also the British DVD only contains two audio tracks – English and German with non removable subtitles.
Story: 3.5 BITCH SLAPS Picture: 4.5 BITCH SLAPS Audio: 4.5 BITCH SLAPS Extras: 3 BITCH SLAPS Overall: 4 BITCH SLAPS
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