Fifteen-year-old peasant girl Maria, played with a pouty, Teresa-Ann-Savoy-worthy mono-expression by Susan Hemingway, is frolicking in the woods with her boyfriend when sinister Father Vicente discovers the young lovers. He brings young Maria, who is dumber than a bag of hammers, back home and explains to Dear Old Mom that Maria has been having Naughty Relations with her boyfriend. It's a blackmail-tastic move, and Maria's mom is forced to comply with the Father's demands for some reason that was mostly unclear to me. I mean--hell, how much Family Honor does a washerwoman widow have to preserve? There are, like, forty people in the village and I'm sure this isn't the first they're hearing of Maria's makeout sessions. This is not a world where Logic And Reason preside, though, so after extracting a fee from her mother, Maria is whisked away to a convent school.
As played by William Berger, Father Vicente is the very essence of sleazy, finger-tenting, ecclesiastical evil. Just check out that eyebrow-arch--you know that nothing good is going on in his brain. FYI to the gentleman title-holders in the Tenebrous Empire--PRACTICE YOUR FINGER-TENTING AND EYEBROW ARCHING. There will be a test.
Gratingly naive Maria enters the convent and things appear strange right from the get-go, with the female head of the convent demanding to be addressed with vaguely occultic titles. The High Priestess of the convent proceeds to kneel down in order to perform the Obligatory Wandering-Fingers Virginity Check, an expression of lust on her face with its parted lips and raised eyebrows. Maria's expression is one of pouty confusion, much as it was while making out with her boyfriend. This girl is unflappable! Teenagers were made of steelier stuff back in the day, let me tell you. In a PLOT POINT moment that happens shortly thereafter, Maria is informed that the convent is right around the corner from the HQ of the Spanish Inquisition. Because... you know, if you're running a convent where fishy shenanigans are going down, you want to be as close as possible to people who are just drooling to burn your ass at the stake.
Directly after having her virginity verified, Maria is sent to her room where the Welcoming Committee introduces her to a little game of "oops I kissed a girl." Expression of pouty confusion: INTACT! Naturally, the High Priestess of the convent arrives at an inopportune moment and punishes Maria by binding her torso in thorny branches. Some lurid close-ups of a rivulet of blood running down gooseflesh follow. It's touches like this that separate "Love Letters" from the competition--a lesser director would choose to concentrate on the expressions of agony or stick to literal mid-shots, but Franco brings a touch of artistry to the scene that's both discomforting and erotic.
In case you hadn't guessed by this point, this convent is brimming with Sataneriffic activities, and Franco can't wait to show us the goodies. There's a TOTALLY AMAZING lesbonic sex scene in which the nuns use blasphemies in place of passionate outcries, building to the climactic shout of "the devil's playground--DEFILE IT!" Zounds. The High Priestess has been trying unsuccessfully to bear the devil's child, and realizes that virgin Maria would make the perfect Baby Mamma for the Horned One. Eventually, Maria catches wise to the high level of creeposity going on in the convent (including a really icky episode in which Father Vicente masturbates while she confesses to an erotic dream involving her cousin--incest, statutory rape, AND the breaking of holy vows tied up into one neat little package for maximum 'sploitation efficiency: +10 points). Maria writes a letter to Dear Old Mom which is--of course--intercepted and sent straight to the High Priestess. Do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars, go directly to "getting molested by Father Vicente in the confessional."
Maria is still a technical virgin, though, and as such is ripe for the Devil's seed. She's brought down to the chapel for her ritual abuse. Now, the Gold Standard of on-screen sex with the Devil is portrayed in Michele Soavi's "The Church," but for those who dig a little Satan-shagging, this scene isn't half bad.
First off--the actor who plays the devil is the awesomely-named Herbert Fux. No, really. Just take a second to savor that, OK? I'll wait till you're done giggling. He proceeds to defile Maria with leering, cackling enthusiasm while the rest of the convent chants and falls into raptures. Maria almost manages to change her expression during this scene--such is her horror!
The whole "Maria having Satan's baby" subplot is--sadly--not explored. Maybe the above-mentioned scene was meant to be a horrible dream brought on by trauma. Still--who doesn't love a "having Satan's baby" subplot? One can forgive this oversight as it seems to have been substituted with a "being tortured by the Spanish Inquisition" subplot. Who knew that the Inquisition ONLY tortured naked young women? I learn everything I need to know about history from the movies.
Interspersed in this tapestry of pervosity, there are some visually arresting elements. As mentioned, the interiors are divine--they appear to be actual locations as opposed to sound stage sets, and this sense of connection to an actual geographical location goes a long way to enhancing the atmosphere the film. The shots of the sea outside of the windows of the convent and poetic shots of rain falling on brown leaves bring a texture to the movie that just isn't present in other nunsploitationers. Shot-framing is thoughtful and downright elegant throughout, with a great use of black negative space, particularly in the Satan-rape scene. Even at its most shocking, the movie never loses sight of the need to be visually engaging.
Enjoy a gallery of film stills from "Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun" on Flickr, you perverts.