Flavia The Heretic (1974)
Directed by: Gianfranco Mingozzi
Written by: Bruno Di Geronimo, Fabrizio Onofri, Francesco Vietri, Gianfranco Mingozzi, Raniero di Giovanbattista, Sergio Tau
Starring: Claudio Cassinelli, Florinda Bolkan, María Casares
In 15th century Italy, where brutality is wielded mercilessly in the name of God and the Muslims are starting to attack the country, young Flavia sees her suitor beheaded by her father, who then imprisons Flavia in a convent. However, the nuns are going mad and being a nun is no peace in a world where women are treated like dirt, so Flavia runs away, first with a Jew, then with a Muslim commander who becomes her lover……
The pictures and text on the Shameless DVD of this movie seem to indicate that this is a really sleazy, trashy nunsploitation movie,but, give or take the odd bit of writhing, it isn’t at all. Flavia The Heretic is actually a very powerful tale of a woman struggling against the control of a man’s world, so it can almost be considered a feminist movie, although there’s no real preaching. It’s set in a very realistic Medieval world where women are basically there to be used and abused, and where religion certainly offers no escape. Quite the contrary, this movie devastatingly attacks religion, which is shown to be a pointless and actually very dangerous escape from reality.
I may have made the movie sound heavy going, but it isn’t, the ninety or so minutes fly by and although not a simple exploitation movie one is still treated to some fairly nasty things such as the castration of a horse, burning oil poured onto a breast after which the nipple is sliced, and a climactic flaying [though only seen briefly]. However, most of this is used to make and reinforce points. For instant Flavia sees a man raping a woman surrounded by pigs and shit, it’s unpleasant, but important because it not only shows the way women are treated in this environment but emphasizes Flavia’s disgust at her surroundings and her attitude to sex which is that it is unclean. Gianfranco Mingozzi’s direction reminded me of Ken Russell [a good thing in my book] at times, especially during a couple of bizarre but actually very well constructed hallucination sequences.
Flavia is superbly played by Florinda Bolken, who Lucio Fulci fans will know from her great performances in A Lizard In A Woman’s Skin and Don’t Torture a Duckling, but here she excels herself, really letting you feel her changing emotions even when the script perhaps just skims the surface. That’s perhaps a flaw that this movie has, some events pass by far too quickly and some elements you just have to work out properly. For instance Flavia and the Muslim general sees each other on a battlefield, then the next scene they are shagging. Surely some time must have passed before the sexually repressed Flavia would have slept with a man, but we don’t get a sense of any time passing. The low budget also weakens the picture a little. Now of course a low budget can often be a good thing and inspire creativity, but in this film we have some very rushed, unconvincing and poorly staged battles which would have benefitted from some more money or at least a bit more care in the staging.
Still, this is quite a powerful movie, especially when it becomes a kind of Joan Of Arc tale [it is based on fact] in the final third. It’s one of those movies that will usually be looked down and treated as a tacky exploitation piece, mostly by people who haven’t seen it, when it’s actually an intelligent and thought provoking film that deserves to be far better known and thought of, even if it does have a few major flaws that I nonetheless found quite easy to ignore.