Looking at the DVD cover art you’d expect Flavia, the Heretic (Flavia, la monaca musulmana) to be a fairly typical slice of eurosleaze nunsploitation. And you’d be dead wrong. This one is at least as much arthouse as grindhouse. It has more in common with Ken Russell’s The Devils than with nunsploitation flicks like The Sinful Nuns of Saint Valentine. It’s a movie that combines exploitation elements with a serious political purpose.
Based on actual events in Italy in the 15th century, it follows the fortunes of Flavia Gaetani. After killing her lover her brutal father locks her away in a nunnery. Flavia is unwilling to accept the rules of convent life, and runs away with a Jewish scholar. She is recaptured, and is savagely flogged while her approving father looks on.
The sadistic discipline of the nunnery fails to break her spirit, and she comes under the influence of a rebellious older nun who encourages her to defy the authority of men. Her witnessing of a rape that goes unpunished while her father has an unfortunate nun who has fallen under the spell of a crazed sect known as the Tarantulas tortured to death has already led her to question the justice of male authority. When a marauding Moslem army appears on the scene Flavia is more than willing to throw in her lot with the invaders, and she is given the opportunity to find both love and sexual pleasure for the first time, as well as revenge. Events do not turn out quite as she anticipated however.
Flavia, the Heretic has its share of the ingredients you expect in a 1970s European exploitation flick - there’s some extreme violence, considerable brutality and torture as well as lots of nudity, male and female. But it’s all done in a much more sober style than in the usual run of exploitation fare. There’s not a trace of campiness about this film. And the violence does serve a serious purpose. It’s often confronting and very unpleasant, but it’s not gratuitous. Nor can it be said that the nudity and sex are gratuitous - fear of female sexuality (especially in the guise of religion) is a major theme The feminist message isn’t just tacked on as a justification for the exploitation elements - it’s the heart and soul of the movie.
The acting is definitely a cut above the usual exploitation movie standard, with Florinda Bolkan outstanding as Flavia. And she is really given something to work with - Flavia is an intensely complex and contradictory character, and her character develops and changes throughout the movie.
The Synapse DVD looks terrific and features an interview with lead actress Florinda Bolkan, an interview that makes it clear that she took her performance very seriously indeed, and that she’s still proud both of her performance and of the film.
This is a disturbing film, a film that combines intelligence and passion with considerable entertainment value. It might not be quite what you expected, but it’s certainly very much worth seeing.