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 (both in grade school and high school), I find the so-called nunsploitation films of the 1970’s quite interesting (while it goes without saying that none of the good sisters I ever knew 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 Italian-produced bit of ‘70s sleaze.

The story, which takes place in Spain during the days of the Inquisition, 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, and to avoid capture hides inside the walls of St. Valentine’s, where he and Lucita can 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 out of 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, Don Tommasino in The Godfather), the Inquisitor of the area, and, despite the fact she’s innocent, Lucita is sentenced to death. With time working against them, Esteban and Don Alonso form a temporary truce to try and 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, sometimes within the same scene (when Sister Rosario, played by Aldina Martano, is accused of neglecting her religious duties, she’s stripped to the waist and whipped by the Abbess in full view of the other sisters), and we even get the obligatory lesbian encounter, between Lucita and Josefa, which, despite being tastefully shot, still comes off as 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 especially brutal (she really gets into it when whipping poor Sister Rosario), and as we soon learn, her depravity runs much deeper than anyone suspects.

But along with the sex and blood, The Sinful Nuns of St. Valentine also 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), and the movie even has something to say about religious fanaticism (as seen in the character of Father Onorio, who often oversteps his bounds, yet feels it’s justified because he’s doing the Lord’s work). What’s more, the final scenes of The Sinful Nuns of St. Valentine, set inside the convent, are intense and truly disturbing.

By focusing just as much on the story as he did the seedier elements, director Sergio Grieco has crafted a film that is both exploitation and something more besides.

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