Despite the title, the Devil does not make a physical appearance in the Italian The Nun and The Devil (1973). I was a little disappointed myself, so I wanted to get that out there. There is nothing supernatural in the film, which is not any kind of horror film, unless one counts the horrors of a rigid hypocritical authority that punishes its subordinates for following its example.
The Nun and the Devil is set in the 16th century, largely in a convent in Italy. The Mother Superior is dying, and there’s a three-way contest for the position. Mother Lavinia is the oldest member of the convent. Sister Carmela has a powerful family that can offer much to the archdiocese if she’s appointed. But the cleverest and most prepared candidate is Mother Giulia. She has plans, both for the convent and for her rivals.
Lavinia comes down with an illness, and Giulia treats her with her own special “medicine”. Carmela, Giulia learns, is secreting a lover into the convent, and when it’s most convenient she sends out an alarm after him. It’s all cutthroat politics in this supposed house of the Lord.
But even cynical Giulia isn’t prepared when one of her patrons (and the supplier of her “medicine”), Don Carlos, demands more than just the rights to gold mines in the New World for his help. He wants the newest novice in the convent for his own. Isabella, who just happens to be Giulia’s niece.
The Nun and the Devil has some of the trappings that would be useful for a grossly satisfying exploitation piece. And to be fair, there’s nudity, sadism, and some grisly torture in the film. But it is mostly a sober costume drama, about the political machinations that occurred within the hallowed walls of the Catholic church.
It’s pretty explicitly anti-Catholic. In the end, one of the last acts of defiance by a character who declares herself “finally free” is to rip the cross off her clothing. But it doesn’t go down the easiest possible road. One of the primary characters is the vicar Carafa, who wants to temper the more practical (read: corrupt and hypocritical) maneuvers of the Cardinal. Ironically, it’s Carafa’s desire to seriously inspect the goings-on at the convent that leads to the Inquisition and the Cardinal coming down on the place. And since the Cardinal has to take notice, he demands swift action. That means torture.
The Nun and the Devil is not any kind of exciting exploitation film, but it is absolutely beautifully helmed. Much of the action was filmed in a real convent, and the settings and Catholic trappings make for some mesmerizing scenes. There’s also a terrific sequence away from the convent where Isabella is trying to escape with her lover from Don Carlos. He mounts his men on horses, taunts the escapees, and nearly runs them down. But Isabella proves she has an understanding of her own powers, both personal and familial, and strikes a bargain with the Don.
The Nun and the Devil has an interesting story about politics in the Catholic church to tell. But it’s not particularly exciting. The film rife with beautiful sequences, lovely costuming, and some individual sequences that work well. As a story, though, it’s a little flabby and unfocused. The very nature of a convent means it is difficult to really discern any inner life for the inhabitants. There are hints in some scenes of what goes on, but the characters aren’t generally developed beyond their ambitions. This makes the story, already confusing, hard to relate to. It’s a film of interest. It’s beautifully made. It unfortunately doesn’t engage the emotions, which makes it ultimately fall a little flat.
The Nun and the Devil has been released on Blu-ray by Twilight Time. Extra include a commentary track with film writers Kim Newman and Barry Forshaw. Video extras include “Judging Luc” (24 min), an interview with actor Luc Merenda; “The Devil and Martine” (17 min), an interview with Martine Brochard; “Paolella Connection” (35 min), a documentary on writer and director Domenico Paolella; “Horny Devils: Nunsploitation Explained” (HD; 7 min), an interview with film scholar Marcus Stiglegger; and a trailer.
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