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Scurrilous habits

Seriously, there can be few fans of cult cinema who would fail to be intrigued by a 1973 movie with the title The Nun and the Devil, especially one that features an actress named Maria Cumani Quasimodo and that is being promoted as "the best of the sex-and-violence-in-a-convent movies.* I have to admit to being only dimly aware that such a sub-genre even existed, let alone familiar enough with an example against which other such films might be judged. But turn the DVD cover over and there's more. A quote from the non-culinary Spaghetti Nightmares claims the film is a "ferocious Italian answer to The Devils with heavy erotic element." Ferocious, eh? And comparing the film to Ken Russell's still-unreleased-on-DVD masterpiece is taking a big bloody risk with audience expectations. The final cake icing takes the shape of a red banner at the top of the DVD cover that announces this as the "Restored Full Uncensored Version," hammering the point home with a triple proclamation of the same thing.

The suggestion is clearly of a salacious story of sexually frustrated nuns and what really goes on Behind Convent Walls (which is the title of the one sex-and-violence-in-a-convent movie, directed by Walerian Borowczyk, that most cult film fans will have heard of and perhaps even seen). Certainly the early scenes point us in that direction, with two ambitious and beautiful nuns both vying for the position of Mother Superior, and both with their own sexual secrets – Mother Carmella clandestinely receives a male lover at night, while Mother Julia Guila has an eye for the younger novices and is also attempting to speed up the succession process by treating the present Mother Superior's illness with poison.

The first thing to note is that if it's racy sex you're after then you've picked the wrong film. There's precious little nudity, and what little sex you'll find here is presented with surprising coyness. Even the lesbian eroticism on which this release is partly trading is hardly going to have the Daily Mail campaigning for a ban, though if legs and knees float your boat then there's one scene that should certainly have you leaping for the rewind button.

By the midway point, it becomes clear that this is not an erotic drama but a drama with mildly erotic asides, a story of intrigue and power struggles, but one more akin to the shallow family wrangles of Dallas than the almost apocalyptic confrontations of The Devils. Character and narrative depth are largely absent, and a potentially interesting sub-plot involving wealthy landowners and their connection with the convent is paid only a passing visit.

Russell's film nonetheless casts a significant shadow, and following Mother Julia's appointment as Mother Superior, a series of anonymous, finger-pointing letters to the church hierarchy spark off an inquisition that both cinematic tradition and history itself tells is us not going to go well for the nuns. When intolerance and questions move on to torture, it's hard to say for sure if such scenes are staged to horrify or perversely titillate (and I'm not condemning the film for either). The Catholic Church is certainly not painted in the friendliest of colours, but given the documented horrors of the inquisition, the church hierachy are in no position to complain. Dramatically, this is where the film finds its feet and we start to care about the nuns and their plight, an alignment with female victims of male-enforced religious oppression of a sort that is depressingly still inflicted in certain corners of the globe.

Time has rendered The Nun and the Devil a curious beast, neither as erotic as it must once have seemed nor that compelling as drama, despite the upturn towards the end. What does surprise, however, is quality of the production values, especially the handsome, fluid cinematography (cinematographer Giuseppe Ruzzolini also shot Pasolini's Oedipus Rex and Theorum, and Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dynamite), which gives the film a sheen that outclasses much of its content.

sound and vision

Framed 1.78:1, the print here is in surprisingly pleasing shape. Dust spots are there but thin on the ground, and the colour and detail are rather good – if this was an anamorphic transfer it would score some serious points, but it unfortunately isn't. Occasionally things get a little dark, notably a night-time murder where it's difficult to work out just what the hell is going on.

The mono Dolby 2.0 soundtrack has some background fluff and hiss and even the occasional clunk, but is otherwise perfectly serviceable. Although an Italian film, the international cast appears to have forced the choice of English as the default language – although there has clearly been some post-dubbing, for most of the time the lip movements match the dialogue perfectly.

extra features

Not a wimple.


A not uninteresting film from the early 1970s, restored and resurrected for investigation by the curious. My own uncertainty over its merits is far from universal, and there are those who hold it in very high regard. Argent Films' DVD boasts a decent (if non-anamorphic) print, but is disappointingly devoid of extras.

* From the Aurum Horror Encyclopaedia.

The Nun and the Devil
[Le Monache di Sant'Arcangelo]

France / Italy 1973
99 mins
Domenico Paolella
Anne Heywood
Luc Merenda
Onella Muti
Martine Brochard
Muriel Catalá

DVD details
region 0
1.78:1 anamorphic
Dolby 2.0 mono
subtitles .

Argent Films
release date
16 October 2006
review posted
19 October 2006

See all of Slarek's reviews