Gianfranco Mingozzi's FLAVIA THE HERETIC has been a much sought-after title amongst fans of the sleazy nunsploitation subgenre and of stone-faced Florinda Bolkan, one of the most underrated actresses of European cinema. Available previously through Redemption in the UK, offering a VHS tape snipped of much of the surprising violence, Synapse Films has rescued the film from obscurity, presenting it in its original uncut version. Whether the film will deliver the goods for fans is a different story.
In 17th-century Italy, young Flavia witnesses her tyrant father massacre a tribe of heathens and decapitate a friendly smiling man before her very eyes. He then imprisons her in a monastery, to live a life of solitude dedicated to serving the Lord. As she grows older, Flavia begins questioning both her religion and her purpose in life. She witnesses vicious rape, grisly torture, and many other atrocities committed by men, leading her to turn her back on men in general. When she falls in love with a Muslim invader wreaking havoc amongst Christian villages, she falls even further into degradation and bewilderment.
Those expecting a nunsploitation masterpiece filled with blasphemous sex acts, oodles of nudity, and lesbianism aplenty will be sorely disappointed by FLAVIA. Mingozzi's intent is to create a historic piece, based on true events, rather than an exploitation film. The isolated countryside setting is incredibly well-photographed by Alfio Contini and the musical score by Nicola Piovani is simply marvelous. Still, the film does contain its fair share of convincing violence (impalings, nipple slicing, and the infamous skinning scene, presented here completely uncut) and those seeking nudity will enjoy Flavia's drug-induced hallucinations, including a nun climbing into a hollowed-out cow carcass and a dinner party gorging on a nude body on a table. FLAVIA hinges on the ensemble cast, all contributing fine performances. Bolkan was rarely offered leading roles where she spends so much time on-screen, so this is a special treat for her fans. Maria Casares makes quite an impression as the elderly Sister Agatha, whose spunky feminist attitude inspired Flavia in her quest for inner peace.
Synapse's anamorphic transfer of FLAVIA is presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The presentation is very clean, with very few (if any) instances of dirt and mild instances of grain, but the colors look a bit soft. Blacks aren't strong, either. The mono audio services Piovani's score marvelously, but dialogue is very quiet at times. Not one of Synapse's best jobs, but FLAVIA has never looked better and knowing Don May, Jr.'s perfectionist mindset towards his product, he worked hard to get it this way!
The extras on the disc won't blow anyone away, but they create a nice little package nonetheless. First up is a video interview with Florinda Bolkan, where she discusses her character motivations, her personal connection with Catholicism, and the working relationship with Mingozzi and her fellow actors. Other than bad lighting, it is a wonderful addition, a rare opportunity to hear her speak of her career. A stills gallery collects lobby cards and posters from Germany, Italy, and Holland (one calls the film THE REBEL NUN?!), a good number of production stills, and a scan of a rare 45 RPM record containing themes from the film. Alas, no trailer, but there apparently wasn't one available from the licensor.
FLAVIA THE HERETIC is a hard disc to recommend. I personally loved the film, with sweeping visuals, starring personal favorite Florinda Bolkan, and genuinely surprising plot developments that kept me interested throughout the running time. Fans of the film should obviously grab the disc up right away, but any curious newcomers must get rid of any preconceptions and settle in for a history lesson with added blood and guts. (Casey Scott)
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