This has been sitting, shrinkwrapped, on the Den Of Geek desk for a long time. What with its bare-breasted nuns, irreverent tag-line (“flay me baby one more time”) and talk of rape, castration and bondage, we were all afraid to open it. After about a month of ignoring its presence, the way you’ll not comment on a vicar’s fart, fearless Tony Enticknapp looked it up on the web and suggested it might actually be a real film. I’ve watched it. It is.
The full title of this Shameless release of Gianfranco Mingozzi’s 1974 release is actually Flavia The Heretic – First Time Uncut On UK DVD. Though Shameless have defied their own name by not adding an exclamation mark to the end of that lengthy title, it does give some indication of the target market, who may be as disappointed by the emptiness of the saucy marketing as I was pleasantly surprised. If you’re expecting the pulchritudinous whippings of The Story Of O, lightly couched in just enough intellectual vainglory to knock it off the top-shelf, you’ll be disappointed.
Set in 15th-century Puglia, the film tells the story of Flavia Gaetani (Florinda Bolkan), the wayward and rebellious daughter of a nobleman, sent to a monastery for her romantic interest in a Muslim traveller. There Flavia is schooled in the ways of proto-feminism by misandrist nun Maria Casares, and excepts only the convent’s Jewish caretaker from her loathing of her father and the male-dominated Catholic oligarchy she has been born into…
Flavia may have been trying to get in on the wave of controversial publicity that Ken Russell’s The Devils was receiving in this period, and an early scene gives the marketing people something to work on in that area: the ‘order of the tarantula’, a confusingly motivated, roving band of female religious lunatics pay Flavia’s convent their annual visit, and it’s quite a sensation – their ravings, ecstasies and sexual insanity influence one of the younger nuns, who bares her breasts and devotes herself immediately to their order. The consequent punishment scene is arguably the ‘hardest’ thing in the film, but really only for one shot of a nipple excision, executed with unconvincing prosthetics.
Far harder to watch – for me – was the outrageous horse-castration scene. They may have done it for real for all I know. I can’t tell you, as I was watching it through my fingers.
But here (as elsewhere in the film) Flavia’s violence is not gratuitous, since the equine castration immediately sets the stage for the examination of the topography of 1970s emergent militant-feminist thought that occupies 99% of the plot, and is mirrored in later scenes. The repressive and phallocentric Catholic regime is represented by Flavia’s cruel and uncompromising father, and the emergent and enlightened ‘new man’ by the Jewish caretaker at the convent and the leader of a Muslim invasion, which event Flavia embraces as an escape from the strictures of catechism and the dogma of her male-oriented world.
Flavia is inevitably to find that her new allies – who allow herself to set up as a crusading, feminist Joan Of Arc figure – are no better than her former ‘masters’, and her mentor’s vision of a female pope and a world where the convents men built to repress women will school the new female revolution is but a distant dream.
The cinematography and performances are excellent, but in a euro-pudding of this nature (a co-operation between France and Italy), the actors may be on the same page, but they’re not speaking the same language, and Flavia will have to be forgiven its customary dubbing glitches.
Ironically, the film’s marketing, both in 1974 and 2008, mirror the very reductionist chauvinism with which the central protagonist is concerned, and some of the unanswered questions presented by Mingozzi have not lost their contemporary edge. Howbeit, the sensationalism that tops and tails Flavia may send it eternally into the bins of disappointed porno enthusiasts who were hoping for a bit more nunsploitation.
But that’s the price of using sensationalism to market a film with a message – those who would have appreciated the message will never get past the lurid cover, and those who wanted what was promised on the cover will have to sheath their Kleenex for another film.