Monday, February 25, 2013

Behind Convent Walls (1978)

It makes perfect sense that Walerian Borowczyk decided to try his hand within the field of nunsploitation, which had proven to be quite popular during the 70’s. Not that Borowczyk was a trend hopper, he was the furthest thing from it, it’s just that so many of the trappings that applied to the nunsploitation subgenre were prime for Boro’s touch. Inspired by Stendhal’s Promenades dans Rome, Behind Convent Walls turned out a bit different that other films to have gotten the nunsploitation tag, which should come as no surprise when considering the director. After making it perfectly clear that he wasn’t going to cater to what was expected of him from critics with Immoral Tales (1974) and having offended every uptight dweller of police society imaginable with The Beast (1975), Borowczyk had been virtually blacklisted from the good graces of critics (not that he cared at all), and Behind Convent Walls could be seen as yet another example of Borowczyk’s refusal to pander, essentially telling the “proper” critical and societal establishment to basically go fuck themselves. Behind Convent Walls was an interesting addition to Boro’s filmography in that it was an Itialian production, making it one of only two of his feature films to be shot outside of France. It’s also an important film as it was the first of his films to feature the amazing Marina Pierro, something myself and I’m sure many other fans are eternally grateful for.

Abbess Flavia Orsini rules her convent with a tyrannical iron fist, shielding her nuns from every possible form of temptation, dealing out harsh forms of punishment to any who disobey. The sisters however have grown increasingly resentful of their Mother Superior and her draconian ways and much to the dismay of Abbess Orsini begin acting out in even more rebellious fashions. The arrival of Rodrigo, the hunky nephew of the convents Father Confessor whom Abbess Orsini allows to study in the convent doesn’t help matters much, even causing Sister Clara (Ligia Branice, Borowczyk’s wife) Abbess Orsini’s niece, considered by her aunt to be a shining example of piety to feel “impure” thoughts. Abbess Orgini cracks down on the sisters once again, although the sisters begin to fight back, taking things a bit too far prompting an intervention from higher up’s in the church, the consequences of which are rather sinful.

Borowczyk had taken not so subtle shots at the Catholic church in pervious works, perhaps most notably during the final segment of Immoral Tales, but with Behind Convent Walls (Interno di un convento) he dedicates an entire film to outright lampooning them. Lampoon is defiantly an appropriate word, as the film is more of an over the top parody rather than a serious critique of the church and indeed the films comedic elements are one the main selling points. Although it came as no shock to Boro fanatics, what may or may not surprise first timers is just how funny the film really is, especially if you share Borowczyk’s blasphemous sense of humor. Scenes such as Pierro’s Sister Veronica, who REALLY loves Jesus, ecstatically describing Christ’s psychical attributes to the Father Confessor or a nun physically demonstrating the usage of a certain wooden foreign object found in her room to an absolutely aghast Mother Superior had me in stitches, plus it’s really hard not to be in hysterics due to the overall absurdity of some of the situations the film presents,  not to mention the reactions of the church authorities to the happenings during the films hilariously chaotic finale. The film’s narrative is incredibly loose and while it technically doesn’t really tell a cohesive story, I don’t think Borowczyk intended it too. Had he tried to tie everything together more neatly the film had the potential to become convoluted, but as it stands, the episodic, dare I say liberated nature of the film is more than suitable.

There were many factors at work which resulted in Behind Convent Walls becoming not only one of the most gorgeous but also one of the most unique looking films in Borowczyk’s body of work. First, the cinematography, handled by the legendary Luciano Tovoli. The film makes prominent use of natural light, which along with being economical played a substantial part in the film looking the way it does, it really wouldn’t be the same without it. What’s also interesting about the photography in the film is the usage of filters in certain scenes. Tovoli is known for his hatred of filters, but compromised with Borowczyk which was a good thing as the filters, working hand and hand with the natural lighting and Borowczyk’s soft focus give the film an incredibly spellbinding effect, the way it makes the light from a window or the white on the nuns habit all the more radiant. One wonders if there was a bit of sarcasm on Borowczyk’s part in making sections of the convent and the nuns wardrobe more glowing, more “holy” looking so to speak. Borowczyk’s history as a painter is also on display here, most notably in terms of texture and color, the reds and greens in the film are particularly brilliant. The film also features a good amount of handheld camera work which fits in perfectly with the films fun and playful way of going about things, and to top it all off there is the mesmerizing organ dominated score sure to put you in a blissful daze.

Again, Behind Convent Walls marked the first time Borowczyk worked with Italian beauty Marina Pierro who would go on to become his muse for the next 10 years appearing in the films Immoral Women (1979), Dr. Jekyll and His Women (1981), The Art of Love (1983), and Borowczyk’s final feature film Love Rites (1988). She also famously co-starred in Jean Rollin’s 1982 classic The Living Dead Girl. Although her role in Behind Convent Walls isn’t a staring one (I don’t really think you could describe any of the performers roles in the film to be “starring”), the scenes involving her character are certainly some of the most memorable. Behind Convent Walls is perhaps one of the easiest of Borowczyk’s films to get into for the uninitiated yet still remaining an acquired taste as most of Boro‘s polarizing body of work tends to be, and probably always will. It’s a film that is liable to surprise many a viewer that go in with preconceived notations on account of the “nunsploitation” label, as it’s unlikely you’ll ever see a nunsploiation film quite like this. It’s stunning direction, photography, hypnotizing use of music (which was something you could always count on Borowczyk for), bizarre and oftentimes side splitting humor mixed with eroticism make Behind Convent Walls the type of film that only Borowczyk could have made, and the most fun 95 minutes you could spend with a group of nuns. Absolutely essential.

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