Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger has a sacred plantar wart, and a goiter that is gunning for priesthood.
In the midst of life we are in death.
Like fondue and string art, nunsploitation smacks of the 1970s. If you were to enjoy fondue or disco music today, onlookers might not find it overtly odd—but somewhere in their brains, the '70s cortex is being activated. So when Nigel Wingrove's feature debut Sacred Flesh came across my docket, it seemed anachronistic. The movie is shot in gleaming digital video, rife with modern post-production values. But the setting and dialogue say 18th century, while the genre and themes have a retro '70s flavor. The disconcerting blend of these elements forces the viewer to reclassify (or at least rethink) nunsploitation by integrating the recent political travails of the Catholic Church.
Facts of the Case
The Mother Superior (Sally Tremaine) of Sacred Heart convent sits in her cell on the brink of insanity. Faithfully transcribing account after account of the sexual transgressions of her charges has opened a well of lust within Mother Superior's own heart. Threatening to cave in to sexual desire, Mother Superior barricades herself in her room. There she plays out conflicting trials in her mind. One is presided over by a grim Mary Magdalene (Kristina Bill), who posits that lust repressed becomes far more dangerous than healthy sexual activity. Meanwhile, the ghastly spectres of Catechism (Rachel Taggart) and Repression (Eileen Daly) reinforce Mother Superior's Catholic upbringing, driving her to flagellation and severe self-recrimination.
The Abbess (Moyna Cope) and Abbot (Simon Hill) can only keep watch and debate church politics while Mother Superior replays a parade of wanton transgressions in her mind.
Dramatic opening credits tell you right away that Sacred Flesh is going to be something different. Stark amber light penetrates a pool of fluid, which collects a rain of blood droplets. These droplets stain the water while rosary beads float by like writhing tentacles. The lines are so crisp and the colors so saturated that there's no doubt we're watching a creatively shot digital production.
This intro gives way to a philosophically heavy psychodrama about the place of women and sexual desire in the Catholic Church. Crudely effective costumes and sets do a fair job of suggesting the 18th century, though visual evidence of razor-sharp detail and computer effects betrays that vintage. The dialogue is so capably written and studiously delivered—and the subject so dire—that if you didn't know naked nuns were coming up, you'd be forgiven for thinking this the 21st-century answer to The Exorcist. Grim skulls taunt Mother Superior's mind, while a severely cowled Mary Magdalene in green eye shadow and come-hither lipstick holds court over a writhing succubus. The pure imagination and horror of these sparkling sets (not to mention their CGI-enhanced backgrounds) is hyperreal, while the ruddy walls of the convent ground us in reality.
Yet the naked nuns are coming, and when they do, Sacred Flesh switches gears to soft-core porn mode (albeit with a boost from its highbrow aesthetic). Unlike most of the films we review at DVD Verdict, Sacred Flesh contains clear shots of genitalia, which automatically vaults it to a higher DefCon status. At times like this, we judges have to decide if the nudity is outright porn (which we don't review here) or is presented in the service of some artistic purpose.
You may be thinking "Nunsploitation? C'mon…slam dunk!" I'll admit that the two carefully lit shots of vaginas probably fall under the "porn" heading. However, as this review makes self-evident, Wingrove's film in toto is trying to accomplish something artistic. He's exploring the fundamental disconnect of human sexuality with the teachings of the Catholic Church. The "normal" levels of sex and violence in media have arguably increased, which has set the bar for exploitation higher. Even non-erotic "R" films show male nudity with increasing frequency. There is no actual sexual contact in this movie, certainly no penetration; but the genitals are there (in our faces, as it were), and we must deal with that in our own ways. I'm inclined to think that Wingrove is trying to demystify feminine sexuality, to shock us through this naked image into reconsidering Puritan mores.
Highfalutin talk for a nunsploitation film, isn't it? Perhaps. But Wingrove bypasses so many obvious opportunities for softcore antics that it becomes clear he's aiming higher. For example, Emily Booth's bit part as a local wench flirting with the Abbot's servant boy is tastefully cut away from when hanky panky begins. Likewise, the Abbot and Abbess are strictly platonic, even when admitting their own tolerance for sexual experimentation within the convent. Mother Superior herself and the comely Mary Magdalene stick strictly to verbal sparring. If Wingrove wanted to really cheapen his picture while upping the erotic payload, Mother Superior would have been using the horns of Magdalene's succubus in most unseemly ways. He avoids such nonsense; instead, all sexual activity is constrained to Mother Superior's fevered imaginings of firsthand accounts. One could argue that all of the sex in Sacred Flesh is luridly exaggerated through the filter of her unsatisfied lust.
In fact, highfalutin talk is a mainstay of Sacred Flesh, and is probably its most divisive aspect. Three-fourths of the film consists of religious ruminations couched in arch dialogue. This prose is recounted in a highly structured, yearning intonation, as though the mere stating of the words pains the actors. Sometimes, this stilted approach highlights the psychological terror of the script, and other times it distills the erotic subtext. By the end, it wears on the ear and proves itself for what it is: a considered mechanism for masking the uneven acting abilities brought to the table. Everyone speaks in the same measured, doom-laden tones, which democratizes the acting styles. Such an approach is understandable; aside from Emily Booth, Eileen Daly is the only name you're likely to recognize (she played the undead hit woman in Razor Blade Smile).
Another intriguing aspect of Sacred Flesh is its unique visual approach. Strongly filtered colored light casts the scenes of nun debauchery in stark chiaroscuro with saturated highlights. Black and amber, red and blue play off of each other constantly. The stark red, white, and black habits stand out from jet black shadows while golden light caresses their wanton bodies. Catechism and Repression hound Mother Superior from within a smoky, bloody, greenish-yellow haze of death. Magdalene's chamber rivals the jewel tones of the Palm Beach Police Department in Silk Stalkings. And of course the real-life settings are plain stone, mud, and grass. It isn't always successful, but Sacred Flesh's cinematography is arresting and original.
Among the numerous extras, it's no surprise that Wingrove's commentary is the most compelling. Of course the listener cannot steer the direction a director takes when commenting on his material, so I'll have to keep my frustration at the lack of "how to" information in check. Wingrove opts instead to delve into the historical foundation behind the work, the actual outbreaks of madness and "possession" in 18th- and 19th-century convents. Wingrove is clearly interested in the Catholic Church and its effects on human psychology; his commentary reinforces some of the finer points made in Sacred Flesh.
Do all of these soft-core shenanigans, modern touches, and highbrow religious ruminations meld into a cohesive movie? Not quite. But they do meld into a memorable one that will single-handedly resuscitate the nunsploitation genre. I mean that in a good way. And while you're waiting for the next lesbian nun scene, you may just latch onto one of the religious debates that rage throughout the movie.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Sacred Flesh is circa 2000, which puts it on the early side of digital media exploration. The look is noteworthy, but not pristine. The high contrast reveals stair stepping in diagonal lines, which detracts from the otherwise seamless effect. Some of the highlights bloom, and minute rainbows spark in the wake of fast movements. Aside from those small defects, the visuals are outstanding. The sound is a different story. In some cases (especially when the skull was talking) the words are so fractured and muffled that I could barely discern what was being said.
In case the vagina discussion above didn't drive the point home, Sacred Flesh has some annoying porno touches. The actresses jiggle a lot and writhe in exaggerated, non-natural ways. This is how soft-core porn tells us something is happening, I guess. I prefer still, silent throes of ecstasy to jabbing hands and slow-motion seizures.
At least the sex scenes are understandable. Sacred Flesh has a point to make, but doesn't know how to make it—or when to shut up. It took almost a half hour for me to figure out what was actually happening and who the skull chick was supposed to be. When I did figure it all out, there was a sweet spot of horro-religious erotic tension, which gave way to a diffuse, mumbled ending. Many characters—in fact, most of them—are extraneous. It seems like subplots were initiated and abandoned due to some mid-production tweaking process. What was with the feral thief girl? The wench? The stable boy? Even the Abbess and Abbot? Sacred Flesh meanders too much for its own good.
The religious dialogue and structure of the narrative eventually sags under its own weight. By the final passion play involving the desecration of sister so-and-so ("Poor, unfortunate sister so-and-so!") I was a little burnt out on the whole "nuns gone wild" thing. They made it sound like she was going to be drawn and quartered by the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, but all that really happened was that a few nuns she was hot for gave her a tongue-lashing. That's what she wanted! What's the big deal? Is it because they did her on a giant cross?
This scene gives way to the final resolution, which is really an anti-resolution. Does Mother Superior go crazy? Does she listen to Mary Magdalene or Catechism? Most important, does she institute a policy of mandatory spanking in the Sacred Heart convent? We never find out.
My closing words are simple. Do the words "nun-on-nun action" intrigue you? If so, go see it. If not, don't.
Are you kidding? Mary Magdalene is a hooker with a pet succubus! Sacred Flesh is doomed to roast in the smoldering pit of hell. I hear there are lots of naughty nuns there.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Heretic Films
• Theatrical Trailers
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