Love Letters Of A Portuguese Nun (1977)
(aka Love Letters From a Portuguese Nun/Liebesbriefe einer portugiesischen Nonne)
Director: Jesus (Jess) Franco
Cast: Susan Hemingway, Ana Zanatti
All images used with the kind permission of Erwin C. Dietrich!
Maria (Susan Hemingway) a beautiful young virtuous girl is caught (supposedly) in flagrante delicto by a local priest (William Berger), after the priest convinces her mother of this and releases her of her great burden of money that she has saved for her daughter and herself, he whisks her off to a convent where she shall be saved from her wicked inclinations (so he says!)
Once in the convent Maria is inspected to make sure she is in possession of her hymen, by the Mother superior Alma (Ana Zanatti. Alma Matter, Latin, Bounteous Mother. Geddit?), and then asked to describe her sins in detail to the father (which he revels in of course!). Maria is then punished for sins she has not committed, her punishments consist of being wrapped in thorns, locked in a lovely decorative box and being forced to fellate the priest. After these assaults on her innocence Maria flees from the convent, and proceeds to tell the mayor of her troubles, hoping he doesn’t think her mad. Of course he thinks her mad (or else it’d be a pretty short movie!) and she is promptly returned to the walls of the convent where she will be sacrificed to their God (who by the way is not old beardy upstairs!). The plot thickens as does the dookie that Maria finds herself in after the priest and Mother Superior request the help of the local Inquisition (you knew that was coming right?), where after Maria is tortured and sentenced to be burnt at the stake (well done that is!) before which she manages scribbles of a wee note (the letter of the title) to God begging for his help.
This really is a masterpiece! I know I say that about almost all Franco movies, but this one truly is gorgeous! It’s beautifully filmed, has excellent scenes with quick shot (pun intended!) subliminal editing sequences and a good all round editing look and feel to it. The locations are great for the period piece due to the fact the Swiss movie mogul who produced it Erwin C. Dietrich bestowed an ample budget on Franco (as well as most other directors he hired) and obviously took time to find good locations for the film so it would look great for the period, and it does!
It’s a brilliant directing job by Franco. Yes it’s just a straightforward trial of an innocent nun piece, the genre dictates certain scenes have to be in there and they are all here! Pervy priests, horny Mother Superiors, lesbian nuns, make that naked lesbian nuns, characters claiming their righteousness when we know otherwise, the infamous inquisition and a good old stake burning. A couple of slight deviations though, the God of the convent worshipers is actually Satan, though to all outsiders they do claim to be Christians! And well a little, I think, unconventional ending, but apart from these two deviations, it’s a straight 1,2,3 -nunsploitation movie, but this is how it’s done properly!
The few things that we know are Franco touches are not really present here, there are no interludes of seemingly unnecessary/annoying (depending on your opinion of his film making!) shots with loud jazz over them a’la Vampyros Lesbos (1970)/She Killed In Ecstasy (1970) among many others. In fact there is no jazz at all just a very appropriate, non intrusive use of well executed period sounding pieces. Except in one part where it turns all frenzied and anxious during a scene of Maria’s confusion, but two seconds in when you realise it’s displaying the characters state of mind, and is not just out of tune, you think “Brilliant!” Zooms, are minimal and barely noticeable, and not of the nauseating kind, just a slow zoom in or out her and there, and none in quick succession. So if you have a problem with Franco films because of the nauseating camera work this is the one to get over it with, and expose yourself to the genius!
The story is not as brutal as some other nun movies, The Devils (1971), Flavia The Heretic (1975) and Nuns Of San Arcangelo (1973) come to mind as three that were way more bloody. A nice touch was actually seeing the Priest in the confessional, and just seeing how much he was actually enjoying Maria’s confessions! Something that was always believed to be what went on, but not as far as I can remember shown before!
Obviously parallel’s coming up now, with the Marquis De Sade. Maria is obviously the innocent and virtuous Justine at the beginning of the movie, but fortunately does not continue to be so blindly convinced (faith bordering on stupidity) of the inherent good of mankind throughout the movie, as Justine is in De Sade’s novel.
During production it was normal for Franco to be shooting more than one film at a time, which would leave his actors losing sight of what movie the were actually filming at that moment.
In the 1970’s Jesus Franco along with Luis Bunuel shared the title of “Most Dangerous Filmmakers in The World” a nice little title bestowed on them by the catholic church.
Isn’t it nice how we get a showing here of people gathering round to see the stake burning, and people blame the ills in today’s society on videos and computer games! So what the hell happened 200 years ago during all these witch trials, while all these fuckers were cheerily sitting round the burning’s and hangings with popcorn in there fucking hands, ohh what a nice wholesome family day out, I’d say!
The version I saw was the wonderful director’s cut disc from “The Official Jess Franco Collection” a crisp and clean wide screen version, with language choices, and a clear sound track, it has loads of Franco & Dietrich trailers, an interesting and informative documentary on the complicated and time consuming film restoration process and brilliant interviews with Erwin C. Dietrich, Jess Franco & Lina Romay, what more could a film fan ask for? It’s just absolutely gorgeous!
Oh and by the way this is that sexy tramcar full of nuns I was telling you about!
Review by Giovanni Pistachio, Giovanni can be contacted at: –
© Owned Giovanni Pistachio 23/02/2003
Susan Hemingway seemed to start her career around 1977 with this film and went on to do several more (listed below which were all directed by Jesus Franco) before disappearing from acting around 1983, anyone who knows more feel free to contradict me! Susan gives a good performance here, convincing and spirited, and holds her own easily among her cast of seasoned professionals.
- Women In Cellblock 9 (1977)
- Je Brule de Partout (1978)
- Elles Font Tout (1978)
- Sinfonia Erotica (1980)
- Ópalo de fuego: Mercaderes del sexo
- Voces de Muerte (1983)
- Keoma (1976), with Franco Nero and Olga Karlatos.
- Django Strikes Again (1987) again with Franco Nero, and also Donald Pleasence.
- Hercules (1983) by Luigi Cozzi, with Lou Ferrigno and Sybil Danning.
- La Noche de los asesinos (aka Suspiri, 1976) by Jesus Franco and his ever wonderful partner Lina Romay.
And Dozens more, try the links below for a fuller list.
Erwin C. Dietrich during the 1970’s was one of Europe’s largest producers of films. On occasion his yearly output would exceed 10 movies (a perfect producing partner for the equally prolific Jesus Franco, also producing Franco’s Ilsa: The Wicked Warden, 1977 and Jack The Ripper 1976). During the 1970’s Dietrich produced and directed many erotic movies, as producer he employed directors like Franco, Marco Ferreri, Antonio Margheriti (aka Anthony M. Dawson, yes he of Killer Fish, 1978 Cannibal Apocalypse 1980 Yor Hunter from the Future 1982 and Codename Wild Geese 1984), and Riccardo Freda.
Dietrich switched from erotic films to action movies and comedies in the 1980’s and he is considered one of the greatest producers of films in Europe, derided by the critics (whom he never cared about pleasing!) but loved by movie fans and respected by industry professionals all over the world. Check out the link below for more on this Swiss movie making mogul.