Friday, March 4, 2016

#2,027. The Sinful Nuns of St. Valentine (1974)

Directed By: Sergio Grieco

Starring: Françoise Prévost, Jenny Tamburi, Paolo Malco

Line from the film: "Even the dumb learn to speak when Father Onorio interrogates them"

Trivia: Corrado Gaipa, who plays Father Onorio in this film, had a brief part in 1972's The Godfather as Don Tommasino, Michael's sponsor in the Sicily sequence

Having had more than a few run-ins with nuns over the years, in both grade school and high school, I find the so-called nunsploitation films of the 1970s more than a little interesting. While it goes without saying that none of the good sisters I encountered looked like the women in these movies, the hypocritically pious mother superiors you often find in films of this ilk definitely hit close to home.

There have been some fascinating entries in this subgenre, including Behind Convent Walls, Flavia the Heretic, and Killer Nun, just to name a few. But with a title like The Sinful Nuns of St. Valentine, I knew I couldn’t let another day go by without seeing this bit of Italian sleaze.

Set in Spain during the days of the Inquisition, this film centers on the forbidden love between Esteban Albornoz (Paolo Malco) and Lucita Fuentes (Jenny Tamburi); not only is Lucita about to take her vows and join the convent of St. Valentine’s, but their families have been feuding for years, and it was because of her feelings for Esteban that Lucita’s father, Don Alonso (Franco Ressel), sent her away to become a nun. Having been accused by the Holy Church of heresy (a trumped-up charge instigated by Don Alonso), Esteban finds himself a wanted man. To avoid capture, he hides inside the walls of St. Valentine’s, where he and Lucita occasionally spend a moment or two together.

But Lucita is being watched, by both her lesbian roommate Josefa (Bruna Beani), who knows of Lucita’s love for Esteban and uses it to gain sexual favors; and the tyrannical Abbess of St. Valentine’s (Françoise Prévost), who gets a perverse thrill from torturing her subordinates. When Josefa is mysteriously stabbed to death, the Abbess accuses Lucita of the crime. She is brought before Father Onorio (Corrado Gaipa, who played Don Tommasino in The Godfather), the Inquisitor of the area, and, though innocent, Lucita is sentenced to death.

With time working against them, Esteban and Don Alonso form a temporary truce to rescue Lucita, but freeing her from the grip of the all-powerful church may prove an impossible task.

Like most nunsploitation films of this era, The Sinful Nuns of St. Valentine is loaded with nudity and violence, often within the same scene. When Sister Rosario (Aldina Martano) is accused of neglecting her religious duties, she is stripped to the waist and whipped by the Abbess in full view of the other sisters. We are even treated to the obligatory lesbian encounter, between Lucita and Josefa, which, despite being tastefully shot, still feels kinda creepy (Josefa practically rapes Lucita, who, fearing for Esteban’s safety, allows her amorous roommate to have her way). In addition, the Abbess of St. Valentine’s is depicted as an especially brutal overseer. She really gets into it when whipping poor Sister Rosario. And as we eventually discover, The Abbess's depravity runs much deeper than anyone suspects.

Along with the sex and blood, The Sinful Nuns of St. Valentine spins a surprisingly good story, one that branches off in a number of different, yet equally engaging, directions: the love affair between Lucita and Esteban; the mystery surrounding Sister Josefa’s death; the tense camaraderie that develops between Esteban and Don Alonso, etc. The movie even has something to say about religious fanaticism, as seen with the character of Father Onorio, who often oversteps his bounds, yet feels he is justified in doing so because it's the "Lord’s work". Capping it off are the final scenes of The Sinful Nuns of St. Valentine, set inside the convent, which are intense and truly disturbing.

By focusing just as much on the story as he did its seedier elements, director Sergio Grieco crafted The Sinful Nuns of St. Valentine into a film that is definitely exploitation, but something more besides.

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