The "priestess of violence" launches a river of blood in high definition on Scorpion Releasing's Blu-ray of the brutal Italian nunsploitation film FLAVIA THE HERETIC.
Forced into a Puglia convent by her domineering father who resented only having a "cursed daughter", Flavia Gaetani (Florinda Bolkan, A LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN) has long kept silent her questions about why men make all of the decisions. When the "Tarantula Cult" – a wandering group of people apparently driven mad by being bitten by the titular creature – visits the convent and "influence" fellow novice Sister Livia (Raika Juri, Visconti's LUDWIG), she is condemned to death by torture. Flavia appeals to her father to stop it and he refuses, so she decides not to return to the convent and runs off with Abraham (Claudio Cassinelli, ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN), the Jewish youth her father rescued from the ghetto to oversee the lands Flavia's father gave to the church as her dowry. They are captured and Flavia is punished before being forcibly returned to the convent where quietly defiant nun Sister Agatha (Maria Casares, "Death" in Jean Cocteau's ORPHEUS) sparks a sense of rebellion in her with ideas of how religion is used to oppress women's sexual power. Their visit to the seaside to see the Madonna coincides with an invasion of Muslim soldiers who slaughter the village. When a French duke (Spiro Focas, JEWEL OF THE NILE) – first seen by Flavia raping a servant girl (Franca Grey, BLOODY CEREMONY) – kills Sister Agatha for ridiculing his manhood, Flavia allies herself with the Muslims – specifically handsome commander Ahmed (Anthony Corlan, VAMPIRE CIRCUS) – and she takes up the sword against her enemies, first at the convent and then at home ("First revenge, then liberty").
FLAVIA THE HERETIC is an odd duck of a film, feeling more historically-grounded – drawing inspiration from "The Martyrdom of Otranto" – than some nunsploitation films, lending power to its images of graphic violence (the effects are no more "special" than those seen in other films, but they seem more grueling) and explosion of repressed sexuality (once again, no more graphic even at its most delirious than other sexploitation films but feeling more taboo-bursting than similar scenes in other nunsploitation pics). Former Brazilian model Bolkan's central performance contrasts her severe features with a vulnerability that keeps her sympathetic even as her revenge includes so many innocent casualties. That said, a certain degree of self-importance in the ravishing photography and lighting of Alfio Contini (THE NIGHT PORTER) and editor Ruggero Mastroianni (brother of Marcello and longtime editor of both Federico Fellini and Luchino Visconti) as former documentary filmmaker Gianfranco Mingozzi lingers more on some of the more benign compositions while only glimpsing the exploitative material. This approach may put off some viewers - especially because the feminist aspect of the narrative is more bluntly stated through dialogue (Flavia contends that Lilith escaped the Garden of Eden rather than being cast out) and obvious symbolism (following up the graphic gelding of a stallion to make it more docile to work in the fields with Sister Agatha's Freudian charge that powerless women are castrated) - but seasoned fans of Italian exploitation (and the kind of art film this may have been intended to be) may find this an exceptional nunsploitation picture.
Long unavailable apart from Italian-language bootlegs, a rare Canadian VHS tape, and a BBFC-trimmed tape from Redemption Films in the UK (where it played as THE REBEL NUN) – the film apparently had a U.S. theatrical release by Jack H. Harris as FLAVIA, PRIESTESS OF VIOLENCE – FLAVIA THE HERETIC made its DVD debut courtesy in Germany courtesy of X-Rated Kult Video in 2003 in a non-anamorphic transfer with English and German audio options and a CD soundtrack. This was followed up quickly by Synapse Film's domestic release featuring an anamorphic transfer and an interview with Bolkan. The 2008 UK release from Shameless was one of their earliest releases – capitalizing on being uncut for the first time in that country – and utilized a non-anamorphic master (presumably from the Italians – who then released a 16:9 version in 2011 – as American rights owner Alfredo Leone only includes the US and Canada).
Scorpion's all region single-layer Blu-ray features a 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.78:1 encoding of a new high definition master that can be soft, but the grain seems intact and fine textures like the weave of the nuns' habits are wonderfully discernible in close-up (some scenes are definitely shot through scrims like Flavia's fantasy visions of the Turkish soldier taking the place of St. George on the convent's fresco). The colors are more vibrant - particularly the candlelit bare flesh while the night scenes of the Turkish invasion are a bit soft-looking (but this appears to be the fault of the cinematography). Because the opening credits and closing were outside of the NTSC title-safe area, Synapse had window-boxed the title sequence. Scorpion has not done this and some credits skirt the edges of the frame, but they were still readable when I checked them on a monitor with overscan. The English-dubbed DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track has clear dialogue and a clean if not particularly vibrant rendering of one of Academy Award-winning Nicola Piovani's (LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL, THE PERFUME OF THE LADY IN BLACK) best and most underrated scores.
The only extras are trailers for Oliver Stone's SEIZURE, SOMETHING WAITS IN THE DARK (also known as SCREAMERS, New World's retitled, re-edit of Sergio Martino's ISLAND OF THE FISHMEN with a gory new prologue with Mel Ferrer and Cameron Mitchell, and effects by Cris Walas), DOGS, SORORITY HOUSE MASSACRE, HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW (already released on 2-disc DVD by Scorpion but forthcoming as a Blu-ray), and DEATH SHIP. There is no pop-up menu, however there is no scene menu or any other options besides "Play Film" and "Trailers". (Eric Cotenas)
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