A particularly Catholic form of exploitative art, Nunspolitation is steeped in seemingly contradictory imagery and themes, visually celebrating the very same perversions that it emotionally condemns. Rooted in the political intrigues, familial abuses, and abusive power of organized religion (not to mention the cosmic struggle between erotic passion and religious ideology), this emotionally intense, culturally damning genre focuses most often on the hypocritical tyranny of the traditional Catholic Church. Of particular interest is the relationship with those women whose poverty, family ties, or natural lusts landed them behind monastery walls, and their struggle with an institution (and members thereof) guilty of worse sins than those which they preach against.

Founded in oral folk tales that first mocked the Catholic doctrine of sin, and later, written literature that emphasized the cruel living conditions and repression of the 'Brides of Christ,' Nunsploitation as the aesthetic form we now know (and love) stemmed from Aldous Huxley's The Devils of Loudan, a novel which resulted in Ken Russel's The Devils, one of the few critically lauded entrees of the genre. But before Russel's nuns foamed at the mouth and fingered themselves, sparking off a controversy amongst polite society for its expose of Catholic corruption, the genre had already been established -- and its major thematic and stylistic conventions formed -- by such films as Lady of Monza (1969) and, more pertinent to our discussion, The Nuns of St. Archangel (1973) and The Story Of A Cloistered Nun (1974), the later two having long been considered staples of this particularly subversive and sensual form of exploitation. A drama first and exploitation movie second, The Story Of A Cloistered Nun weaves a powerful allegory of sin, redemption, and renewal. The film is more concerned with exploring the total emotional history of its titillating, sympathetic heroine than in simply reducing her (or its overall story) to a principle of brash sensationalism. While director Domenico Paolella doesn't shy away from violence or eroticism, these physical symptoms of unresolved pain and longing often mirror the internal conflicts of characters instead of overshadowing them -- something that would occur later in the more graphic, sleazy excesses of Joe D'Amato and Bruno Mattei. Offered in a stunning transfer with insightful extras by No Shame, this love letter to brutality and betrayal is also a potent indictment against corrupting religious authority, championing the resistance of the human spirit . . . with dollops of lesbianism and nudity for spice!

In a story equal parts tragedy, romance, and political intrigue, The Story Of A Cloistered Nun is firmly entrenched in neither exploitation or the art film. In fact, it surmounts the stylistic limitations of both, making both conventions work for it. Paolella's plot (supposedly based on a true story, as are a number of these films), centers on Carmela (Eleonora Giorgi), whose parents pressure her to marry the son of another wealthy family, tying the two families together for power and prestige (arranged marriages were common in the period). But Carmela develops into beautiful womanhood with a mind -- and impulses -- of her own, falling in love instead with a simple peasant boy. Refusing to obey her parent's wishes, she is forced to join a fanatical convent tucked away in the countryside (another major motif of the genre, emphasizing the inequality and helplessness of children in this period). Here she is ceremoniously isolated, taunted, and humiliated as the other Sisters look on, aroused by her suffering. When she is finally deemed worthy of joining the sisterhood, she is befriended by the seductive Sister Elizabeth (Catherine Spaak), whose show of friendliness masks jealous deception. Adjusting to monastery life, struggling with fear and uncertainty, Carmela is observed by the Mother Superior (Suzy Kendall), and punished for improper behaviour. When Julian (her lover) shows up, she is aided by Sister Elizabeth to keep a tryst with him. Carmela learns afterwards that Elizabeth is in love with her, and that she is caught between a political battle of wills between Elizabeth and the Mother Superior . .

While all of the familiar trappings of Nunsploitation are well represented, they serve as trappings and ornaments, not the major crux of the narrative. The debauchery is utilized as an aesthetic tool to explore Carmela's character and predicament -- and the battles for power and self-control in the religious institution itself -- not as the major motivation of the film. Lesbianism, nudity, violence, humiliation, and punishment stand alongside (and mirror) such politically charged elements as the religious abuse. The power of Church, state, and the Sisterhood are genuinely disturbing, and the script is careful to treat these subjects in an intimate manner. Caramel is the victim through which we experience the pain and horror of a religious mechanism that uses fear to drive out perfectly normal 'sinful' appetites. Paolella's direction is as much an indictment of Catholic tyranny as it is a celebration of the human spirit. For while The Story Of A Cloistered Nun is, much like the films that followed, an occasionally perverse celebration of those very physical/emotional cruelties that its central story externally rallies against, walking the tightrope between condemnation and exploitation, its overall tone, it must be noted, lacks the grim pessimism that would later become a staple of the form. There is much of terror and misery here, but also much hope. While this may turn off fans who seek nothing more than lesbian wrangling, whippings, and bloodsport (granted, very fine things!), the dramatic emphasis on character -- and ultimately hopeful message -- of the story should appeal to anyone who enjoys fine cinema.

Building an impressive reputation for its diverse catalogue of underappreciated classics both in and out of the genre, No Shame is also known for its attention to technical quality. The Story Of A Cloistered Nun is no exception, offered in a superlative 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that far outshines any other release yet available. Despite VERY minor grain now and again, the clarity is wonderful. Colors are realistic and bright, with convincing flesh tones and no shimmering to dilute the beautifully photographed settings. Sound is included in both Dolby Digital Italian language mono and Dolby Digital English, with optional English subs.

One of the chief joys of any No Shame release are the inventive and informative extras that lend social, aesthetic, and genre context to the features. The major supplement for this disc is "Sex Behind the Veil," a twenty-minute documentary that explores the inspiration for the story, the production, and the reactions upon its release. Also discussed are the challenges of the roles, some technical aspects, and the genre in general. Interviews are the greatest attraction herein, including talks with Eleonora Giorgi and Umberto Orsini. A Poster and Still Gallery, two trailers, and a fold-out poster with liner notes round out this comprehensive package of what may well be the most engaging (if not the most shocking) entrees in a genre soon become impregnated with increasingly exploitative flesh-and-blood hysterics.

Review by William P. Simmons

Released by No Shame
Region 1 - NTSC
Not Rated
Extras :
see main review