Secret Ceremony (1968) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • Leonora, a prostitute, mourns the death by drowning years earlier of her daughter. She encounters a strange waif-like girl, Cenci, who bears a strong resemblance to her lost child. Cenci is herself struck by the great resemblance of Leonora to her own mother, whose death the mentally unstable Cenci has been unable to accept or even acknowledge. The two women quickly develop a symbiotic relationship, moving in and out of the illusion that each is the lost loved one of the other. The complicating factor is the arrival of Albert, Cenci's stepfather, whose incestuous attachment to her may well be the cause of her mind's unbalance. With Albert's arrival, no one in the strange trio is safe.

  • In London, Leonora Grabowski, a middle-aged, low-rent prostitute, and Cenci Engelhard, a twenty-two year old heiress now alone in the world, embark on a relationship of sorts following their chance meeting. That relationship stems from Cenci, who suffers from psychological issues, believing, due to a physical resemblance, that Leonora is really her mother, Margaret Engelhard, who recently passed away. Learning why Cenci has this attachment to her, Leonora senses an opportunity to get out of her low rent life by realizing Cenci's delusion in becoming her mother, at least in her eyes. But Leonora also takes on this persona in her own unrealized motherly instinct, as her own daughter, Judith Grabowski, passed away five years ago at age ten in an accidental drowning. Reality could threaten this new arrangement, that reality in the form of Cenci's paternal spinster aunts, Hannah and Hilda, who, if they can't inherit the Engelhard estate, plan to steal it one item at a time, and in the form of Margaret's second husband, Albert, who returns from abroad where he was living and who not only has that opportunistic sense like the rest of them, but also a predatory nature specifically when it comes to Cenci. What happens is also affected by Leonora coming to a better understanding of Cenci's psychological and emotional issues, and she doing whatever required to protect her "daughter" at whatever cost in not wanting to lose another child all over again.

  • A penniless woman meets a strange girl who insists she is her long-lost mother, and becomes enmeshed in a web of deception, and perhaps madness, in this powerful psychological thriller.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • While riding on a bus in London, Leonora, a fading prostitute, discovers that she is being stared at by Cenci, a sad-faced younger woman who bears a remarkable resemblance to Leonora's deceased daughter. Cenci follows Leonora to her daughter's grave and invites her to the shuttered old mansion where she lives. There, Leonora learns that she closely resembles Cenci's dead mother. Touched by Cenci's need for love and intrigued by the luxury surrounding her, Leonora succumbs to the young girl's wish that she stay on and live with her as her mother.

    Explaining to Cenci's two greedy aunts, Hilda and Hannah, that she is the dead mother's sister, Leonora assumes her role with ease, settles down to a life of comfort, and becomes devoted to the child-like Cenci. Eventually, however, Leonora learns that Cenci is really 22 years old, that her stepfather, Albert, was banished from the house for attempting to seduce her, and that her mother was hopelessly insane.

    Returning to the mansion one day, Leonora finds Cenci cowering under a table after a visit from Albert. Cenci convinces Leonora that she has been raped by her stepfather, and the two leave for the seashore. Albert follows and confronts Leonora with the fact that Cenci is a sexual psychotic who has repeatedly tried to seduce him. Realizing the truth of his statement, which is supported by Cenci's infantile attempt to appear pregnant by stuffing her dress with a doll, Leonora desperately tries to force Cenci to face reality. Instead, Cenci seeks out Albert on the beach, consummates her love for him, and sends Leonora away.

    A short time later, Leonora visits Cenci, asks to be forgiven, and pleads for the chance to resume their former relationship. But Cenci sends her away once more and then commits suicide. When Leonora and Albert meet in silence at Cenci's funeral, Leonora pulls out a knife and plunges it into Albert, killing him.

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