Kino Lorber releases Nigel Wingrove’s banned Nunsploitation film, uncut.
|Starring:||Dan Fox, Elisha Scott, Louise Downie|
Though not necessarily mutually exclusive, imagery and storytelling, through the eyes of the filmmaker employing them in their work, are not always created equal. The obscure cult sub-genre of Nunsploitation demonstrates how visual ideas can overtake narrative entirely. Nigel Wingrove’s Visions of Ecstasy, a short film which details the 16th Century Spanish nun St. Teresa of Avila’s erotic encounter with the crucified body of Christ, is much more interested in the power of suggestion than the literal-mindedness of plot and exposition. Perhaps this is to blame for the initially vitriolic response it received from the British Board of Film Classification, whom, upon its release, issued the film its first refusal of a certification, on the grounds of blasphemy. To see such religious figures who are held sacred to so many engulfed in sexualized violence, with no scripted exposition to account for what is on screen, can be far more unsettling than the actual acts taking place.
More than anything, Visions of Ecstasy is an exercise in letting provocative visuals speak louder than words. As St. Teresa, Louise Downie emotes and moves her body in an animated manner akin to the performances of the silent film era. Wingrove’s direction of Downie’s performance relies on his internal instincts as a design artist, and allows her to tap rhythmically into the film’s propulsive, looping drum track, provided by Steven Severin of Sioxsie and the Banshees (and indicative of the late ‘80s time period in which it was conceived).
For better or worse, Visions of Ecstasy never wavers from boundary pushing. Its very overt juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane will likely avert some eyes programmed to revere the characters being represented, while forcing others to reconsider what’s “sacred” and “profane” in the first place. If this assessment sounds at all overreaching, it’s because, to some extent, the staging of Visions of Ecstasy is as well. To be sure, an exploration of ideas about purity, repressed desire and sin is at work here. But unless the alienation of his audience is part of Wingrove’s aim (which it may well be), his camera’s fetishistic gaze muddies the message meant by his interpretation of the writings of St. Teresa. So often does the film revel in its line-blurring between pain and pleasure, that it forgets to state why it is blurring those lines in the first place.
Visions of Ecstasy leaves us with some indelible images, particularly in its piercing opening shots, which turn the subtlest of blood droplets into protracted spectacle. Downie’s literal and figurative headfirst dive into executing Wingrove’s decidedly edgy directorial choices is quite brave. Her interplay with a crucified Christ (Dan Fox) deserves to be seen, if only because the mind boggles at the thought of this little abstract short – relatively tame in its violence, by today’s standards – being so roundly and unanimously condemned by censorial boards for 23 years. The perceived taboo of Visions of Ecstasy is perhaps what makes viewing the work irresistable, and what makes the successful efforts of its maker to fight back against its initial ban so culturally important.
Redemption Films, Wingrove’s own cult and genre distribution outfit specializing in erotic and European horror titles, offers a satisfactory full-frame transfer, one that emboldens the effective red and green hues of Wingrove’s painterly aesthetic.
The disc’s Dolby Digital 2.0 sound mix services Visions of Ecstasy’s soundtrack well. Issues of extraneous noise or distortion are not apparent. No alternate languages or subtitles are provided.
Among an array of extras on this release is a handful of additional works from Wingrove, including his eight minute short Axel, his two minute short Faustine, and his full-length Nunsploitation feature Sacred Flesh. Whereas the first two aforementioned shorts explore their subjects in a manner similar to Visions of Ecstasy, Sacred Flesh tries its hand at more ambitious, heavy-handed sequences that knowingly exploit the shock value of lesbianism, sado-masochism and blasphemy in a religious context.
While interesting in spots, much of Sacred Flesh’s proceedings are esoteric to a fault, insomuch as they seem to rely on prior knowledge of nun culture and Christian scriptures that may or may not be universally accessible to exploitation audiences. The film’s darker material – specifically, sequences involving a skeleton-faced nun reciting scripture in a demonic voice – also suffers from some cheap looking and dated special effects work, no doubt an unfortunate byproduct of the low-budget production means it was afforded.
At the same time, seekers of truly bizarre and subversive cult titles shouldn’t let the obscurity of Sacred Flesh’s subject matter repel them entirely. Regardless of whether a borderline pornographic directorial approach (no exaggeration here) provides sufficient clues to dissect the film’s substantive value, contextualizing Nunsploitation films is an exercise worth engaging in, and there’s much here for viewers to make meaning of, if you’re willing to do the heavy lifting yourself.
The disc provides useful tools for said contextualization, with the documentary Hail Mary! A Brief Peek at Nunsploitation. In this short but informative work, Wingrove offers his own very knowledgeable insights into the universe of this very insular sub-genre. For purposes of enhanced spectatorship, watching Wingrove’s take on the sub-genre itself prior to watching the filmmaker’s works is recommended. Reflections and anecdotes, here, are in no short supply, as Wingrove walks us through a number of clips from Nunsploitation films, and imparts his commentary on the controversial nature of his subject matter of choice in the non-anamorphic widescreen presentation.
While a film’s “message” should be left in large part to audiences to determine for themselves, Visions of Ecstasy’s refusal to budge in the narrative department leaves something to be desired. Visions of Ecstasy drips with the passion of its making and totes atmosphere aplenty, but what exactly does it intend to communicate? That religion should be reconstructed, that’s it’s broken? Or that its detractors are as justified in their beliefs and reactions as the detractors of the film itself? Despisers of baseless censorship (don’t all true horror fans fall into this category?) should see it for themselves. Just don’t expect to come away with those questions answered.
– By Max Weinstein