The Sinful Nuns of St. Valentine/Le Scomunicate di San Valentino (1973) ***
It’s funny how this sort of thing always seems to work. Italy, Spain, and France are all majority-Catholic countries; hell, the pope lives in Italy (well, technically, I suppose he lives surrounded by Italy, but it’s not like there’s much difference in practical terms), and the Spaniards have for centuries been described as being more Catholic than the pope himself. Not only is Catholicism nearly universal in those countries, the people of Italy and Spain in particular are noted for the devoutness of their religious convictions as well, and for the respect they accord to the church, its representatives, and its institutions. So, in the early 1970’s, when sexploitation movies about beautiful, devil-worshiping, bisexual nuns started appearing, where do you suppose virtually all of them were made? That’s right— Italy, Spain, and France. Granted, it was probably Ken Russell’s The Devils that got the whole nunsploitation ball rolling in 1971, but it was the filmmakers of the Latin Mediterranean who turned what might otherwise have been an isolated blip on the great radar screen of sleaze into a self-sustaining subgenre. Naturally, big-name exploitation directors like Jesus Franco and Bruno Mattei tried their hands at telling the stories of one bunch of horny nuns or another, but lots of filmmakers whom even many die-hard fans of Eurosmut have never heard of also got into the act— men like Giulio Berruti, Domenico Paolella, and Giuseppe Vari. Most of the movies I’m talking about are very difficult to get hold of in the US, though, and the best bet for somebody on this side of the Atlantic looking to dip their toes into the nunsploitation pool is probably a little movie from Sergio Grieco called The Sinful Nuns of St. Valentine/Le Scomunicate di San Valentino. Not only is this movie much easier to find than, say, Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun or The True Story of the Nuns of Monza, it has the advantage of being actually rather well made and comparatively easy to follow. Unfortunately, it isn’t anywhere near as sleazy as one would ideally like a movie called The Sinful Nuns of St. Valentine to be.
In fact, what we’ve got here is actually something very much like an exploitation take on Romeo and Juliet! Esteban (Paolo Malco, from Watch Me When I Kill and The House by the Cemetery) is the 20-some-year-old scion of a well-off merchant family somewhere in Spain. When we meet him, he is fleeing through the woods from a trio of armed men in uniform. Esteban kills all three of his pursuers, but is himself wounded in the fighting; he ends up staggering the rest of the way to his destination on foot. That destination proves to be the convent of St. Valentine, where he is taken in by Joaquin the verger (probably Gino Rocchetti), to whom he seems to have some pre-existing personal ties, and who hides Esteban in his quarters outside of the convent proper. The reason for all this rigmarole is that Esteban is in love with a girl named Lucita (Jenny Tamburi, from Frankenstein, Italian Style and Women in Cell Block 7), of the noble house of Fuentes, but Lucita’s parents refuse to countenance the idea of their daughter marrying a commoner— even a comparatively rich one. Lucita was not to be dissuaded from accepting Esteban’s courtship, however, so Don Fuentes (Franco Ressel, of Naked Girl Killed in the Park and Seven Deaths in a Cat’s Eye) sent her off to St. Valentine to take monastic vows; evidently seeing his daughter become a nun was preferable to marrying her off to Esteban. Then, just for good measure, Fuentes denounced Esteban to the Inquisition, accusing him of heresy in an anonymous affidavit. Those soldiers Esteban killed out in the forest were the Inquisition’s men. Now that he’s reached St. Valentine, Esteban means, with his old friend Joaquin’s help, to spring Lucita from her cell, and run off with her to... well, honestly, I’m not at all sure either of the two young lovers has thought that far in advance. But as it happens, there’s a more pressing hole in the plan than that— a hole about the same size and shape as the one the soldier’s pistol made in Esteban’s left shoulder, in fact. Nobody’s going to be going anywhere until that wound heals up.
This, of course, spells trouble for Esteban, Lucita, and Joaquin. After all, virile young men aren’t supposed to be hiding out in convents, and that goes double for virile young men who have been accused of heresy— probably triple in this case, considering that Esteban also plans on spiriting one of the novices away to who knows where at the earliest opportunity. And since it can’t possibly be easy to hide a man in a convent for any length of time, the necessity for taking time out from the escape plot for Esteban’s convalescence all but guarantees that somebody is going to discover him at some point. The worst-case scenario is probably discovery by the abbess, Mother Incarnacion (Francoise Prevost, from Spirits of the Dead and The Possessor), but it scarcely seems any better when Lucita’s insistent lesbian cellmate, Josefa (Bruna Beani, of What the Chambermaid Saw and The Eerie Midnight Horror Show), gets wise to the other girl’s secret. So there’s one sense in which it’s rather convenient that somebody stabs Josefa to death one evening while the majority of the nuns are attending services in the convent’s chapel— at least that puts a cap on the amount of sex the dead girl is able to extort from Lucita, while simultaneously eliminating the one person who had certainly figured out what she, Esteban, and Joaquin were up to. Then again, because Lucita is the first one on the scene when Josefa turns up dead in the corridor outside their cell, and because Lucita foolishly ducks into the room to feign sleep when she hears the rest of the nuns returning from the chapel, the circumstances of the crime scene tend to point toward her as the culprit.
And thus it is that, despite all of the precautions taken by Joaquin and Lucita to keep Esteban hidden away— precautions which, by this time, include stashing him in a secret room in the convent’s attic— Lucita comes under the scrutiny of the Inquisition for totally unrelated reasons. She is brought before a stereotypically ruthless inquisitor named Father Onorio (Corrado Gaipa, from What Have They Done to Your Daughters? and Riot in a Women’s Prison), who subjects her to some relatively innocuous torture with the help of a lower-ranking inquisitor named Isidro (Piero Anchisi, of Autopsy and Kiss of a Dead Woman). Onorio is unshakably convinced that Lucita murdered her cellmate; what he wants to know is why. When she maintains her intransigence even in the face of a visit from her father (who figures, quite rightly, that the whole mess has something to do with Esteban), Onorio determines to transfer her to the Inquisition’s headquarters in Seville, where he will be able to make a public example of her. Meanwhile, Esteban has no idea that any of this is going on. He’s been sequestered away in his secret room the whole time, and Joaquin is loath to get him all riled up by telling him of Lucita’s troubles, which he would, in any event, be powerless to do anything about.
Ah, but maybe he can. You see, it turns out that Mother Incarnacion knows all about Esteban, including the background behind his infiltration of St. Valentine’s. What’s more, it seems that her career as a nun began in much the same way as Lucita’s, so she’s instinctively sympathetic to the girl’s plight. The abbess drops in on Esteban on the day of Lucita’s extradition, and fills him in on everything that’s happened. She also promises to do anything she can to aid the rescue that Esteban naturally begins planning the moment he realizes how much danger Lucita is in. There’s one little complication, though. This movie wouldn’t be called The Sinful Nuns of St. Valentine if Incarnacion were as upstanding as she seems, and indeed the events of the following evening demonstrate that the abbess is being so solicitous toward Esteban only because she wants him for herself. In fact, she may have arranged Josefa’s murder herself in order to get Lucita out of the way. And when Joaquin makes the mistake of warning Esteban of the abbess’s intentions, he ends up dead at the bottom of the well, leaving Esteban essentially a prisoner in Mother Incarnacion’s quarters. He does manage to escape soon enough, but Lucita is still a captive in Seville, and Esteban now has two extremely powerful ecclesiastical enemies instead of just one.
There’s only one thing for it, and that’s to go to his old secular enemy, Don Alonzo Fuentes, and try to enlist his aid in freeing Lucita. After all, no matter how much bad blood there is between the two men, we are talking about Fuentes’s daughter here, so there’s cause to hope the don will be more or less amenable to reason. And while he’s at it, Esteban takes the opportunity to do some anonymous denouncing of his own, sending a letter to Seville detailing Mother Incarnacion’s rather loose interpretation of her monastic vows. Thus, while Esteban and a team of men-at-arms on loan from Fuentes go to spring Lucita from the Inquisition dungeons in Seville, Father Onorio will be paying a visit to St. Valentine’s to see just how sinful those nuns really are.
Actually, that’s pretty much the movie’s greatest weakness right there. With a title like The Sinful Nuns of St. Valentine, I expect to get my money’s worth of sin, and this film just doesn’t deliver on that promise. I mean, first of all, it’s only Mother Incarnacion and Josefa who are particularly sinful in their own right, and Josefa gets killed before she gets to do much in the way of sinning onscreen. The other nuns’ primary sin— and, indeed, this is what Father Onorio castigates them for when he comes barging in to break up the party— is their quiescence in the face of Incarnacion’s un-nun-like behavior. Sure, there’s a scene near the end that has most of the inmates of St. Valentine’s ripping each other’s habits off and wrestling at the slightest provocation, but by that point, they’re all supposed to have been driven insane by hunger and bad air as a result of their being walled up alive in the convent on Onorio’s orders, so all the topless catfights don’t really count as sinning as far as I’m concerned. What we get instead, startlingly enough, is a pretty well-made movie, featuring a more or less plausible story with a certain internal logic to it and what appear to be uniformly decent performances from its cast (though, of course, my extremely limited grasp of the Italian language makes it hard to be sure about the latter point). Every once in a while, I do appreciate being surprised by glimmers of quality in unexpected places, even if that means I don’t get the bracing jolt of filth I’m looking for, and that pretty much sums up my experience of watching The Sinful Nuns of St. Valentine.