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The first I've seen of the films Jess Franco made for producer Erwin C.
Dietrich and, frankly, one of only three or four I'm really interested
in (the others being DORIANA GREY , JACK THE RIPPER  and
SEXY SISTERS ). Having viewed this immediately after THE DEMONS
(1972), I'm thankful it has proven to be a whole lot better, thus
living up to its unanimously positive reputation online ever since it
was released on DVD; definitely one of Franco's best (currently ranking
at No. 7 out of only 18 I've watched so far).
From the very first moments (starting off with a much more fitting 'medieval' score than THE DEMONS' eclectic if messy soundtrack), the film conveys both its seriousness of intent (neither THE BLOODY JUDGE  nor THE DEMONS could be taken as anything but fanciful peeks into this controversial yet intriguing time-frame) and its artistic bent (certainly among Franco's most gorgeous-looking films, evident even in the VHS copy I viewed). The film is very well directed for the most part: stylized but highly effective framing (notably the shot where William Berger is forcing himself onto Susan Hemingway) and positioning of actors (the orgy where Hemingway is again raped, now by Herbert Fux's devil incarnate, while all the time her head is resting on Ana Zanatti's shoulder, who seems to be getting her sexual kicks by proxy!). The nick-of-time ending is effectively handled as well, especially its fading out on the two villains' apprehension leaving their eventual fate, as it were, to each and every member of the audience!
The acting of the three principals is terrific:
· Susan Hemingway manages both the character's inherent innocence as well as her determination to put a stop to all the evil at the Abbey (I quite liked the fact that when she finally escapes, we are not shown how she achieves this, and also the matter-of-fact yet rather moving way her 'love letters' are eventually picked up) [Brief parenthesis: I look forward to seeing more of her in Franco's SINFONIA EROTICA (1979), paired with the equally scrumptious Lina Romay who, incidentally, appeared in a remake of LOVE LETTERS OF A Portuguese NUN made by Jorge Grau in 1978!]
· William Berger as the sickest priest ever to hit the screen (far more damaging than the befuddled monk played by Jack Palance in MARQUIS DE SADE'S JUSTINE ), who immediately demonstrates he is adept at persuading virtually anyone to do his bidding (the calm way he haggles Hemingway's poor and impressionable mother out of her savings at the beginning of the film, for instance, but also the girl herself during a humiliating confession scene that just about manages not to topple over into unnecessary grossness and emerges, in fact, as one of the film's highlights)
· Ana Zanatti, however, matches Berger with her proud (and evidently possessed) Mother Superior-cum-High Priestess, creating what is perhaps one of Franco's most fascinating female villains
What I couldn't quite figure out initially about LOVE LETTERS OF A Portuguese NUN is its apparently schizophrenic nature: while it takes the utmost care in establishing period atmosphere and the mood of specific scenes, and doing so with great subtlety (as in the almost subliminal but potentially repugnant shot where Hemingway's face is hit by a rush of semen), the film then goes overboard with its frequent depiction of sexual activity among the nuns and their unmitigated devotion to Satan (as if the agenda of this so-called Abbey hadn't been made blatant already!). That said, the scene where Zanatti painfully confirms her 'faith' (which reminded me of a similarly excruciating moment in the last of the Hammer horror films, Peter Sykes' contemporaneous TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER ) is well done as are, in fact, the various tortures to which lovely Susan Hemingway is subjected for her defiance of the 'house' rules. [In any case, Francesco Cesari once again came to the rescue for me, putting the sex scenes in their proper context which is that, in their pursuit to 'demonize' sexuality, the Catholic Church has rendered the Devil a sexual object leading to a general perversion in sexuality which 'disease' actually sprang from within the convents themselves! Apart from this, Francesco has rightly observed that, before we even get to see how truly evil they are, the characters of Father Vincent and Mother Alma are themselves depicted in the film as wretched human beings indicating, in this way, that they are as much victims of this same culture as anyone else!]
I wouldn't mind buying the film on DVD (in view of the proper Widescreen ratio and VIP's restoration efforts) though the price-tag of the Swiss DVD is set rather too highly for my tastes; I only hope, therefore, that Anchor Bay UK (a DVD is planned for a February 2004 release) can pull this one intact from under the BBFC's scrutiny
Much as Franco's THE BLOODY JUDGE was made in the wake of the classic WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968), his THE DEMONS and LOVE LETTERS OF A Portuguese NUN emerged from the relative success and eventual cult-status of Ken Russell's original 'nunsploitation' epic THE DEVILS (1971); I wouldn't say that Franco necessarily did a better job of it but, thankfully, his efforts did not prove so hysterical as Russell's either! (Actually, watching these two films has reminded me that I've yet to pick up Walerian Borowczyk's similar BEHIND CONVENT WALLS (1977) on R2 DVD from Nouveaux Pictures.)
P.S. The film's 'message' is still timely, especially since here in Malta a sex-scandal was recently unearthed involving priests' abusing of their young male charges(!); incidentally, the religious order involved is affiliated with the Secondary school which my brother and I attended between 1987 and 1992 come to think of it, once we even spent a whole week-end at their convent!!
Many people accuse Jesus Franco of being a talentless hack, but he has an amazing ability to bring artistry and watchability, and occasionally even a little class, to some of the most sordid subject matter. It's hard to rave unreservedly about a movie that features a naked sixteen-year-old girl stretched out on a rack and tortured with a pair of metal tongs--a movie whose subject manner includes masturbating priests, lesbian nuns, satanic ritual sodomy, and all other manners of depravity and blasphemy--yet it's a testament to Franco that the film remains highly watchable and even manages to be somewhat of a serious historical indictment of the Catholic church. Since this at first seemed to be another of Franco's sick WIP movies, I was initially curious why he had cast the unknown Susan Hemingway in a role usually played by Lina Romay, but it turned out to be a good choice. You actually feel sympathy for Hemingway's innocent-looking character when she's tortured and sexually abused by corrupt and lecherous nuns and clergy, whereas these scenes probably would have been merely crass titillation if Romay (who was many things but innocent wasn't one of them) had played the role. This movie makes you wonder what Franco could have done if he'd ever made a serious film that did NOT plumb the depths of sexual violence and human depravity. But I guess it wouldn't really be a Franco movie then, would it?
Tsk, tsk . My poor, old and deeply religious granny should know what I'm watching here. Nunsploitation! Foxy looking nuns doing tricks with their willing and ravishing bodies, in blood-soaked and satanic-themed movies! Blasphemy, my old granny would call it and she would be right as well. Call it what you want it's still fun! It's pretty deranged to see a bunch of nuns bringing sacrifices to Satan. And it's even more messed up to see Lucifer actually appear then and sexually violate an innocent young disciple. Who else than Jess Franco could have been responsible for this? The Godfather of Sleaze tried out every subgenre of eurohorror in his long, fertile career and this stylish, well cinematographed film represents his bizarre nun-fantasies. A young girl named Marie played by Susan Hemingway is caught fooling around with her boyfriend by a frustrated priest. He intimidates her poor mother to force her into a convent. The nuns there, led by Alma Mater Ana Zanetti (who looks a lot like an exquisite version of Susan Sarandon, take unusual interest in her young and sensual body. Lovely convent this is! Mother Superior is a horny devil-worshipper and the priest is a perverted masturbator! Which brings me to the MESSAGE of this film! Yes indeed, message! Jess Franco's films don't often carry a message but this `Love Letters from a Portuguese Nun' does. Franco directly criticizes the historical hypocrisy of the Catholic Church and shows how Catholic superiors abused their powers. This really is one of Franco's finest achievements. Although the film exaggerates extremely when it comes to sleaziness and absurd situations, it also brings forward a lot of style and beauty. The acting is above average and the locations are beautifully chosen. The best aspect about the whole film is the truly magnificent music by Walter Baumgartner, who made a career out of filling exploitation soundtracks. Love Letters from a Portuguese Nun may not be top-quality cinema, but it shows a lot of goodwill and depth. And it's beautiful to look at. Hallelujah!
Jesus Franco's dark yet artistic sexploitation movie concerns Maria
(Susan Hemmingway), a fifteen year old girl, who is caught cavorting with
her boyfriend by the devilish Father Vicente (William Berger). Vicente
convinces Maria's poor and easily intimidated, God-fearing mother (Aida
Vargas) to force Maria into a convent. Upon arriving at the convent Maria
subjected to numerous vile and sadistic sexual tortures, and it becomes
increasingly clear that it is not God that these particular nuns worship.
It is fairly easy to speculate whether 'Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun' is a film with a message or not. It would appear to be a film damning the historical atrocities of the Catholic Church, and while perhaps over exaggerating the real truth (though one may never know for sure), the portrayal of how the Catholic Church abused it's power, particularly during the 16th-19th centuries, seems to be effectively represented here. In fact, to this very day, there is still news making the headlines about the darker side of religion, including the vile sexual abuse that is often covered up the Church itself and carried out by those who are supposed to spread the word of God. While not meaning to sound anti-religious, 'Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun' is a film that is not afraid to push the boundaries of acceptability all the way and condemn the wrong doings in the Church. Bordering on illegal, with frequent horrific representations of a fifteen year old girl naked and/or suffering, what can only be described as sadistic sexual abuse, 'Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun' is a gloomy, yet surprisingly powerful, artistic and thought-provoking film.
Although the scripting occasionally left a lot to be desired, particularly in the scenes involving the Prince of Portugal (Herman Jose), generally the script was very tight, and the dialogue enormously effective. It becomes very easy to empathise with Maria as she suffers the numerous horrid indignities. While I am unable to comment on the verbal acting ability of Susan Hemmingway in this film (as I watched the film with English dubbing), the physical performance of Susan was highly realistic and there is little way that one cannot feel sympathy for this poor, young girl. William Berger's physical performance was also of a high standard and it becomes very easy to feel contempt for this sleazy and perverted man. The confessional masturbation scene early in the movie showed exactly how depraved and corrupt this so-called `good man' was. Berger was also complimented by the addition of Ana Zanatti in the role of Mother Superior, Alma. Zanatti added a loathsome female character which seemingly exhibited more savagery than the despicable Vicente.
Although some may find the occasional scenes of lesbianism portrayed within the movie more titillating than necessary, they still maintain an artistic air and help create an image, for the viewer, of the real actions within the convent. There are numerous scenes of nudity and sexual acts, but the majority of these are more repulsive than erotic. Outside of the eroticism/sexual deviances, 'Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun' is generally aesthetically pleasing as it was shot in some beautiful locations, and featured many scenes of glorious gothic architecture. An early comment on how beautiful the Abbey featured in 'Love Letters.' rings so true, and serves to underline the ignorance to the truth that both the church, and the village as a whole possesses. This imaginative and artistically presented film is certainly worth viewing for fans of similar movies, particularly those who enjoy European arthouse eroticism. My rating for 'Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun' - 7/10.
Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun is a surprisingly professionally made
movie from the king of sleaze, Jess Franco. Usually with Franco, you
can count on a very thin plot and loads of sex (usually involving
lesbians), but this time it's the other way round. Of course, there's
still lots of room for sex (no need to worry, Franco fans) but it's
definitely a secondary element to the plot. This film fits into the
corner of the horror genre known as 'nunsploitation'. This is my first
ever taste of nunsploitation, so I cant comment on the niche on the
whole; but if it turns out to be as interesting as it's title, it
should be pretty good! This film follows Maria, a sixteen year old girl
that is forced into a convent after the convent's leader manipulates
her mother into thinking she's in league with the devil and destined
for Hell. However, this isn't a Christian convent and rather than
worshipping God, these guys are actually a band of Satanists! After
being forced to perform sinful acts with various members of the convent
(including the Dark Prince himself...), Maria tries to escape the
The message in this film is actually rather potent, and it exposes the hypocrisy of religion and, more specifically; the Christian church. The film manages to go even further than that too, with the idea of a sex scandal being pretty much timeless. Sex scandals are still a big part of our society's news stories, and I'm sure that they will continue to be; which gives this film an element of immortality where it's plot is concerned. The sex scenes are surprisingly brief, which is very surprising after watching the likes of Vampyros Lesbos and Bare Breasted Countess. The photography is smooth and nice to look at, leading me to believe that Jess Franco actually wanted to make a film, rather than just another of his usual quickies. Jess Franco made a lot of films over his career, a lot of which are forgettable rubbish; but this film hints that the man may have a lot more talent than his list of directorial credits suggests. Despite some silly sequences (such the Devil love making scene), this film is professionally handled and just well done on the whole. Maybe if Franco had put more effort into the quality of his films rather than the quantity, he would have a few masterpieces under his belt.
Jess Franco's "Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun" is the perfect film to show anyone who thinks all that Jess Franco is capable of is zooming in and out of tasteless sex scenes. Instead of his usual epileptic zooms, the cinematography in this is measured and carefully composed. The acting is also another plus. William Berger's portrayal as the Father Confessor is the epitome of slime and pretense. Let's not forget Susan Hemingway and her effortless performance as the innocent heroine of the title. In closing, this is a MUST-SEE picture and proof that Franco could make a film that would cater to the arthouse crowd.
Spanish horror director Jesús "Jess" Franco died recently, so I decided
to watch one of his movies. "Die Liebesbriefe einer portugesischen
Nonne" ("Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun" in English) offers a
scathing look at the Catholic Church. It tells the story of a teenage
girl whom a priest sees cavorting with a boy, and he makes her become a
nun as penance. We see how the nuns are sexually repressed, while the
priest and mother superior do everything possible to humiliate the
novice. Specifically, there's a lot of torture going on. There are some
VERY ugly scenes.
On the one hand this is basically the average movie that goes as much for shock value as possible. Even so, the movie is also an indictment of the RCC's blatant hypocrisy (note the scene where the priest uses the girl's confession as a way to get sexually aroused). The Church's policies in Medieval Europe constituted some of the most vicious misogyny imaginable.
It's only the second Jess Franco movie that I've seen. In fact, the copy that I saw looked like a copy of a copy (or copied from the TV) and was dubbed in English with Finnish subtitles! I hope to see more of his movies in the future. Just understand that this is a good movie, but definitely not for the fainthearted.
Ken Russell's classic "The Devils" (1971) almost gave birth to a new genre of the exploits of sex starved and repressed nuns. "Love Letters Of A Portuguese Nun" is together with "Flavia The Heretic" one of best and it's also one Franco's most exciting. A teenager is caught kissing with her boyfriend by an evil priest who talks her mother into sending her sinful daughter to a convent. From the first day and all through the movie the poor teen is put through one sexual humiliation after another (incl. sex with satan who has one horn in the forehead!?!). It's sleazy as hell but also very done, beautifully shot, good locations and wellacted. "Love Letters.." could also be seen a comment on religion (Franco with a message?!?!). A must for fans of stylish European 70's smut!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"Love Letters of a Portugese Nun" is one of the best Nunsploitation
During the Spanish Inquisition in 15th century Portugal, Maria Roselea, (Susan Hemingway) is having innocent fun with her boyfriend, but unfortunately, they are caught by Father Vincente, (William Berger) and threatens that the only way he can save her soul is if her Mother sends her to the Serreda Iris cloister, a local convent he supervises. When her mother protests, Father Vincente threatens to turn Maria over to the Inquisitors, and Maria is sent away. When she arrives at Serreda Iris, Maria immediately learns that the convent's Mother Superior, (Ana Zanatti) is now called Grand Priestess. As she is forced to undergo more extreme and extreme torture for the sheer pleasure it brings to the two in charge of the convent. Eventually finding that the coven is actually a front where the renegade priest and nuns perform Christian masses by day and worship the Devil at night, performing Black Masses and other lewd rituals in Satan's honor, she rushes to tell the authorities about the blasphemy, but constantly betrayed and tortured for her believes.
The News: This is a classic among Nunsploitation films. It's just a straightforward trial of the normal innocent nun piece, which the genre dictates certain scenes have to be in there and they are all here! Perverted priests, horny Mother Superiors, naked lesbian nuns, characters claiming their righteousness when we know otherwise, the infamous inquisition and a good old stake burning. There's no shortage of erotica in this movie, delivering with lustful, lesbian nuns, satanic sex rituals, lecherous priests, and plenty of exposed breasts and naked nuns. A couple of slight deviations though, the God of the convent worshipers is actually Satan, though to all outsiders they do claim to be Christians. Women usually emerge as the strongest, most resourceful figures in Franco's wild and wonderful world, yet few command our sympathy and admiration more than Maria. A bloody, bone-stretching session on the rack, encounters with a red hot poker; forced oral sex with Vincente ending with an almost subliminal cut of semen splattering Maria's face and an outrageous carnal coupling with the devil himself are just a few examples of a catalog of indignities forced on Maria by an evil regime that feeds on hysteria, and that doesn't include the tortures from before those sessions. After being examined to prove her virginity, Father Vincente takes Maria to the confessional, where he puts her through a humiliating confession where she can't see it, but the priest is actually masturbating to her sins! Later, The Grand Priestess strips Maria naked and tightly wraps thorn-covered switches around her breasts and mid-section. For her penance, the priest makes her perform oral sex on him then sacrifice her virginity to Satan in a Black Mass. While he rapes Maria, the other nuns break out in an orgy of lesbianism and masturbation. Zooms are thankfully minimal and barely noticeable. They're not of the nauseating kind, just a slow zoom in or out her and there, and none in quick succession. It's strangely sweet tempered at the end and achieves an emotional cathartics rare in the director's work. The titular letter-writing scene is quite haunting, and it gives a much needed feeling to the film. One of the most surprising things is how beautiful this film is, with the convent being a richly lush Portuguese Gothic locations, the lavish period costumes and sets, along with the painter's compositions, give this an aesthetic atmosphere and artistic distance which lift it above many films of this genre and other efforts depicting historical depravity. The contrast between the luxury of the convent and what happens within is quite striking and makes for a loving bit of contrast, as the film shoots the outside with a vibrant feel, and within, it's with a distant, unflinching eye. What problems there are about the film is its apparently schizophrenic nature. While it takes the utmost care in establishing period atmosphere and the mood of specific scenes, and doing so with great subtlety, the film then goes overboard with its frequent depiction of sexual activity among the nuns and their unmitigated devotion to Satan, as if the agenda of this so-called Abbey hadn't been made blatant already. It's worth noting the effect this appears to have had on Franco himself: Whereas he would normally delight in his voyeurism, focusing on the more abstract areas of the anatomy, here he adopts a surprisingly distanced, detached and cautious approach in depicting the tortures inflicted, almost as if he felt guilty or uncomfortable at showing what would have been run of the mill for any of his other similar films. It really feels like a disjointed effort that is really surprising considering where it's coming from, but otherwise, this is still a great entry in the genre.
The Final Verdict: One of the best in the genre, this is a Nunsploitation film with a great underlying sleaze appeal and with some of the best tortures imaginable in the genre, this one comes highly recommended for fans of the genre or Franco in particular.
Rated UN/NC-17: Full Nudity, several strong sex scenes, strong sexual themes, Violence, Rape and some Language
Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun (1977)
*** 1/2 (out of 4)
Fifteen-year-old Maria (Susan Hemingway) is caught by Father Vicente (William Berger) playing with her boyfriend in an innocent manor. The Father tells the girl's mother that she is possessed by Satan so the mother turns her over to a convent. Once there the girl realized that the Father as well as the main mother (Aida Vargas) are in pact with Satan and plan on turning her over to him. This isn't your typical nunsploitation film because it actually has a very strong message bashing the Catholic Church. A lot of these films are just out there to see lesbian nuns mess around and while we do get some of that here, the sexuality isn't the main goal. Franco is certainly trying to show the evils behind the walls of Catholic priests and this subject matter is certainly going to offend a lot of people just like it did when the film was originally released but after all the stories from the past five years it's easy to say this film and Franco were ahead of their time. Both Berger and Vargas turn in very strong performances and truly nasty ones as well. The entire film belongs to Hemingway who is simply brilliant here. Hemingway made a total of seven films in her career and all of them were with Franco, which I've watched six of. She's certainly a very good actress and it's a shame she got out of the business or was dumped by Franco but I've yet to hear any stories about what happened to her. She was around 15-years-old when she made this film so the scenes of her naked or being raped are going to turn a lot of people off but I think it brings a realistic nature to her performance as well as the film. There's nothing hardcore here but the scene where she is offered up to Satan is pretty disturbing. It appears Franco was working on a larger than normal budget here and he manages to turn over a very good looking film with some nice cinematography as well as a great music score. Franco has made a lot of exploitation films in his career but this isn't one of them. The message of the film is quite clear and very strong and in the end this ranks as one of the director's best films.
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