One of the things I enjoy the most about the nunsploitation subgenre is the fact that it presents itself as the "Masterpiece Theatre" of the skin flick world. There's always that claim of a literary pedigree combined with a veneer of social commentary that kinda-sorta redeems the movie, in the same way one might argue that one's weekly visits to the titty bar are a way of supporting single mothers in one's community.
"Convent of Sinners" is a very late entry into the naughty nun canon, and there's absolutely nothing about this 1986 film that separates it from its 1970s genre-mates. This is a movie that obeys the conventions of the genre to a tee. But let's face it--we wouldn't be fans of genre cinema if we didn't have a love of tried and true tropes, yes?
Now, while we're being honest, let's take a moment for frank admission (confession, even): we're discussing a nunsploitation film directed by Joe D'Amato. This is the man born as Aristide Massaccesi who, under his infamous pseudonym, would make Laura Gemser an icon as Black Emanuelle, would sear the image of a pig-fetus-eating George Eastman into the collective brain of gore fiends in "Anthropophagus," and would direct films with titles like"Porno Holocaust" and "Erotic Nights of the Living Dead." It's useless for me to pretend that I'm watching this movie because I'm expecting anything more than a sleazy diversion. One of the criticisms some trash cinema fans register against nunsploitation films is that they've got more melodrama than madness in them--and that's a legit complaint! Women in prison films, which are the spiritual cousins of nunsploitation films, tend to offer more in terms of graphic violence, sex, and plot tension. Watching a nunsploiter without being really into the concept of naughty nuns is like viewing porn that's not intended for your Special Interests--it can feel mildly weird, kinda distasteful and ultimately boring. That having been addressed: if you ARE a fan of nunsploitation, "Convent of Sinners" delivers what you've come to expect in the form of lesbonic interludes, flagellation (both self-imposed and punitive-to-others), questionable theology, and nudity, nudity, NUDITY!
Nominally based on Denis Diderot's "La Religeuse," a scathing indictment of the unnaturalness of cloistered life first published in 1796, "Convent of Sinners" tracks the story of a woman placed in a convent against her will, only to suffer abuse at the hands of the other nuns. Our expectations are lowered straight away since this title card, containing both a typo and a grammatical error, is the first thing we see in the film:
When first we meet Susanna--our hapless heroine--she is being raped by her stepfather, after which incident she is banished to a convent by her mother. Susanna is at the convent for approximately thirty seconds before she is stripped and ogled by the typically-for-this-kinda-flick-repressed nuns. Now, I'm no Catholic, but I'm fairly certain that the "public disrobing and re-robing" is not, in fact, a part of the novitiate. Within about four minutes of screen time, it's established that everybody wants a piece of Sister Susanna, whose acceptance of her chaste fate is reluctant at best. The lesbian Mother Superior trips all over herself to try to get near her, while shy Sister Ursula exhibits what might today be described as "A Girl Crush," and confessor Father Don Morel seems to want to help her into his pants rather than out of the convent.
The plot revolves entirely around the allure Sister Susanna's innocence and unconscious sensuality, which might be more believable if ANYONE but Eva Grimaldi, star of such ultra-klassee fare as "Black Cobra" and "Ratman," were playing this character. Grimaldi plays the character as a smoldering sexpot, pouting and posing her way around the period setting like she's in a vintage Calvin Klein advertisement. There are several moments of unintentional hilarity when what's clearly written to be an innocent exchange of glances is invested with downright pornographic intent. It's easy to see why Susanna sets off a chain reaction of sexual madness in the convent if she's going around undressing EVERYONE with her eyes like that!
In fact, any success that this movie achieves is in terms of its unintended humor. There's the prerequisite strapping young lad who tends to chores around the convent (he's Nazareno, and he's pretty much always shirtless), but of course since this is a Joe D'Amato film and it does NOT traffic in subtleties, there are plenty of great shots of nuns literally drooling open-mouthed at Nazareno's batch. The relentlessly horny Mother Superior tries a consistent barrage of seduction techniques on Sister Susanna, ranging from the "let me tuck you into bed" thing to the "allow me to help you bathe" trick. It's pretty much the Eighteenth Century Catholic equivalent of adolescent girls at sleep-overs who like to "practice kissing." The copy I watched, from Exploitation Digital, employs pretty standard dubbing that does no favors for the performances, which are pretty un-nuanced to begin with. The exception here is the voice actor for Father Don Morel, who has a speech impediment that reminds one most hilariously of the Impressive Clergyman from "The Princess Bride." If he had mentioned "mawwidge," I would've lost it entirely.
Of course, it can't all be boob-touching and stolen kisses all the time (a pity indeed!), and once the Mother Superior falls ill, things take a turn for the terrible for our poor novice. Sister Teresa, the spurned lover of the Mother Superior who harbors a boiling jealousy towards Sister Susanna, starts running the prison--erm, convent. Then junk gets all "The Devils"-lite when Susanna is accused of being possessed and goes through a terrible series of travails at the hands of an Inquisition headed by D'Amato regular Gabriele Tinti (including a re-enactment of the infamous clyster scene) only to have her faith and innocence utterly destroyed in the end.
The production values here are actually reasonably good! I have to tip my hat to the fact that the wimples stay ON for the majority of the film (seriously--without wimples, it's just a dull WiP flick). I could make a "Devils in the Details" pun here, but I won't--you're welcome. The film is shot on location and the setting looks damn-near flawless as a result. The limited color palette, fancy costumes and period setting that are inherent to nunsploitation films are used to surprisingly immersive effect here. There's always something surprising about a movie with such deeply sleazy content that manages to NOT go off the rails into Cheese Territory with regards to its mise-en-scene. Rounding out the background elements is a decent soundtrack by Guido Anelli and Stefano Mainetti that makes good use of classical organ themes and non-intrusive romantic music.
In a perfect world, a D'Amato-helmed nunsploiter would feature a little more insanity, but as the subgenre goes, this is a pretty amusing offering. The unintentional goofiness of the performances set against the backdrop of a well-executed period setting make it a lot more watchable than the more under-achieving entries.