Color, 1974, 101m.
Directed by Gianfranco Mingozzi
Starring Florinda Bolkan, Anthony Corlan, María Casares, Claudio Cassinelli
Scorpion (Blu-Ray) (US R0 HD/NTSC), Synapse (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9), Shameless (UK R0 PAL), X-Rated Kult (Germany R2 PAL) / WS (1.78:1)
Perhaps the most notorious entry in Italy's nunsploitation cycle of the 1970s, Flavia the Heretic is a charged combination of art house social statement and grindhouse sleaze, the exact combination that makes current distributors run screaming. Often released on video in watered-down editions, this nasty concoction is best experienced full strength and gains much of its strength by developing dynamic, interesting characters whose grisly fates pack more of a punch than a dozen slashers.
After seeing her would-be lover decapitated by her overbearing father, Flavia (A Lizard in a Woman's Skin's Bolkan) is packed up and sent to a remote convent where she lives a humdrum, hypocritical existence under the thumb of a fiendish Mother Superior. Flavia decides to leave the church for greener pastures and makes the acquaintance of a Hassidic scholar (Cassinelli), but soon she winds up back under the fiendish lash of her holy sisters. Salvation seems to arrive in the form of a Muslim sect, the Tarantulas, with whom Flavia becomes an emancipated leader in a violent revolt. Drawn in by the sect's charismatic leader (Vampire Circus' Corlan, a.k.a. Anthony Higgins), Flavia chops off her hair and embarks on a tragic journey which leads from hunger for power to gruesome agony.
Capped by a now legendary final scene of unbearable sadism, Flavia looks for all the world like a respectable film for the most part... except for those startling detours into animal castration, mass slaughter, decapitated head hoisting, and a Jodorowsky-style sequence in which a naked woman clambers in and out of a giant, hollowed-out animal carcass. Bolkan's magnetic presence keeps the viewer's eye riveted to the screen even during her long non-verbal sequences; even when our heroine descends into pure, bloodthirsty madness, her plight is compelling enough to make the unavoidable ending all the more painful. Shot in lush, earthy tones, the film is also a feast for the eye, with the camera wandering down medieval hallways and gracing golden meadows occasionally tainted by splashes of blood; the ear is also kept enthralled by a wonderful score from Nicola Piovani (The Perfume of the Lady in Black), with one of those gorgeous, haunting main themes that often makes a perfect counterpoint to the gruesome goings-on. Despite the nunsploitation label, the film has also aged far more interestingly than many of its peers thanks to the ongoing theological violence around the world; the themes of Muslim conversion and extremism on both sides are still as relevant today, which means you could watch this on a double bill with either Kingdom of Heaven or Zero Dark Thirty if you want to have a really, really interesting conversation with your friends.
Throughout the '80s and most of the '90s, anyone interested in this film had to suffer through non-subtitled Italian tapes or the heavily censored tape and VCD versions released in the UK. Relief finally arrived with a 2003 DVD from Synapse, finally uncut and widescreen with very good video quality for the time. Darker scenes tend to get a little grainy, which is how this has always looked, but it's never distracting. The long-censored gore and nudity remain quite strong by today's standards, with some very convincing special effects (apart from some overtly latex-enhanced breast mayhem) and rampant full frontal nudity making this a potent reminder of how dizzying Eurosleaze viewing can be. Like many European films of the period, this was shot with the major actors speaking English and later looped in the studio, so the English track is for all intents and purposes the legitimate one. The disc also includes a still gallery and a video interview with Bolkan, who proves to be quite intelligent and articulate. The sound quality (recorded in a restaurant) can be a little distracting at times, but it's worth the effort to hear what she has to say. A UK DVD followed in 2008 from Shameless, sporting the questionable tagline "Flay Me Baby One More Time!" and featuring a less impressive non-anamorphic presentation of what appears to be the same source material. It's also bereft of extras apart from some unrelated trailers.
Jump forward to 2014, when the film received a thankful upgrade to Blu-ray with a new HD transfer that brings the film up a few notches on the visual front. The opening minutes are still very dark and soft, not surprisingly, but after that it's good news as the level of detail increases and the film now has a more natural (but still grainy, of course) filmic look. This will never look like its slicker peers from the same era, but fans should be happy. The DTS-HD 2.0 mono track is a particular improvement, sounding less tinny and strained than before. Also included are trailers for Seizure, Screamers (under the title Something Waits in the Dark), Dogs, Sorority House Massacre, House on Sorority Row, and Death Ship.
Updated review on January 29, 2014.