Monday, January 5, 2015

Storia di una monaca di clausura (1973)

Italian Two-Panel Poster

Storia di una monaca di clausura (aka Story of a Cloistered Nun), directed by Domenico Paolella, is an Italo/French/West German co-production that tells the story of Carmela (Eleonora Giorgi), a 17-century young woman that shames her family by refusing to marry the man to whom she was promised by her parents as an infant, because she has fallen in love with a young man named Giulio (Antonio Falsi).  The film opens with the two infants in something resembling a marriage ceremony, in which the parents promise that the infants will marry when they come of age.  Carmela's father is so shamed that he tells Carmela's mother that Carmela's choices are death or becoming a nun, so Carmela's mother takes her to a convent and forces her to join.  

Immediately, we begin to learn of the harsh conditions and intrigue that occur behind the convent walls.  Sister Elisabeth (Catherine Spaak) is a young, rebellious nun that sneaks around to do whatever she wants against the convent rules and the orders of the Mother Superior (Suzy Kendall).  It becomes clear that, in addition to frolicking in secret parties with some of the other young nuns late at night, Sister Elisabeth, also carries on lesbian relationships with them.  In addition, with the help of other sisters, she often sneaks out at night for sexual encounters with Diego (Umberto Orsini), a handsome hedonist/whore-monger.

Sister Elisabeth and the Mother Superior become rivals for the affection of the young, beautiful Carmela.  The Mother Superior expresses her loneliness to Carmela, begging for her physical affection, but is spurned by Carmela.  Sister Elisabeth, meanwhile, conspires to help Carmela sneak out to meet Giulio, and in turn use that situation to pressure her into a physical relationship.  She too, however is spurned by Carmela, who only wants to be with Giulio.  Ultimately, through the treachery of Sister Elisabeth, Giulio ends up dead, and Carmela is beyond distraught.  To make matters worse, Carmela has become pregnant with Giulio's child.  The Mother Superior and the other nuns try to keep the situation under wraps, but the Archbishop finds out and demands to know who is the mother of the infant.  When all of the nuns come forward and claim to be the mother, the Archbishop is so enraged that the monastery is to be closed (and we are led to believe that the nuns will be killed).  The nuns work to help Carmela escape with her child, and we are told that she spent her life helping the unfortunate.

In working on this post, I watched this film for the first time.  I had postponed watching this one for years, because it just did not sound like a film that would interest me, if not for Catherine.  The version that I viewed was the now out-of-print U.S. DVD release by NoShame Films, in Italian with English subtitles and running time of just under 97 minutes.  I must say that I was pleasantly surprised by my first viewing.  I would not list it as one of my favorite Catherine films, but it held my interest and is not bad.  I am not an expert on nunsploitation films, because this is the only one that I have ever watched, but I suspect that it is relatively tame for the genre.  It has the lesbian theme (though there are no overt lesbian love scenes), a bit of nudity (mostly from Giorgi), and harsh to the point of being brutal rules and living conditions for the nuns.  However, there is a modicum of taste used in portraying these exploitive themes, and a certain level of class is brought to the proceedings by Catherine and by Suzy Kendall.

Suzy Kendall, a British actress, was a relative rarity in her day, in that she would not do on-screen nudity.  Likewise, though Catherine did a small amount of nudity in her career, she was more conservative in that regard than most of her peers in Italian cinema.  It would be interesting to hear from Catherine as to why she took this potentially scandalous role, yet she was not willing to do on-screen nudity for it (even though there are scenes where it would have been expected, especially in a movie like this one).  

In the extras on the NoShame DVD is a 2006 interview with Orsini and Giorgi.  Orsini talks about how excited he was to work with Catherine, because she was viewed as such an iconic star.  He was especially looking forward to their love scenes.  In the first, the camera is behind Catherine while her top is removed as she faces Diego.  Orsini says that he was anxiously looking forward to her exposure only for his eyes, but the surprise on his face in the film is because, when her top came off, he found that she had tape over her nipples.  Catherine was apparently following the veteran actress trick of placing tape over her nipples to ensure that the director would not end up with any topless footage that might be used without her approval.  Interestingly, there is also an odd homoerotic scene in the film involving Diego and another man wearing only towels and getting massaged by a black man.  In the interview, Orsini expressed his discomfort with that scene, especially because he said that the other man was one of the few fashion designers that was publicly out of the closet at the time.  He seems to regret that he went along with it.

In the interview, Giorgi talks at length about how she came to be cast for this role (her first credited role), even though she was only a part-time model trying to work her way through school at the time.  She talked about how elegant Catherine was and how she helped her a lot, in particular helping her learn how to show fear on camera.  Giorgi noted that Catherine, though only in her late-20's at the time, had already had such a distinguished career.  She was also complimentary of Suzy Kendall and the rest of the cast, noting how much they all helped her work through her inexperience.  She talked about being nervous about doing the nude scenes, but ultimately just treating it like it was no big deal.  She laughingly talked about the first nude scene that they filmed, one in which she is being punished by being beaten with a whip while topless.  She noted that the only female crew member was a wardrobe person who kept putting a towel over her breasts in between takes.  Giorgi finally just told her to stay back, and when she did, the towel stayed perched on her rather large, and very perky breasts.  That became a running joke with the crew about how the towel stayed up.

Though I have seen a few of Giorgi's later films, she never really made much of an impression on me.  Not that she was bad, I just never thought that she distinguished herself from the many other attractive and reasonably talented actresses in that era of Italian cinema.  After watching this film, however, I can see why she got the opportunity to continue working and improving her acting skills.  Much like Catherine in I dolci inganni, Giorgi's inexperience gave her a certain vulnerable, naive persona that worked well for the role.  I thought that she did a good job.

As for Catherine's performance, I think that it was solid, overall.  She looked beautiful with long, strawberry-blonde/reddish hair (to the extent that she got to show it in a couple of scenes).  I think that the scene in which she expresses her longing desire to Carmela is one of the better dramatic scenes of Catherine's career to that point.  On the other hand, there are a couple of scenes that do not work as well, because of Catherine's pretty smile.  For example, when Sister Elisabeth is having her encounter with Diego, he wants her to tell him about the lesbian encounters behind the convent walls.  She smiles what should be an evil or devious smile as she talks to him, but the smile seems out of place.  It is Catherine's natural smile/grin, which just does not seem appropriate for the situation.

All-in-all, Story of a Cloistered Nun is definitely a film that all Catherine fans should check out.  Although the themes are quite exploitive, they are handled in a relatively tame manner, Catherine's performance is good, the film is well-made with a good musical score, and the film is reasonably interesting.  Although not a sequel, the film is a follow-up to the very successful Le monache di Sant'Arcangelo from 1972 starring Anne Heywood and Ornella Muti.  I liked Cloistered Nun well enough that I will make a point to watch the previous film.

Here are a few other random thoughts from my viewing of the NoShame DVD:
  • In one scene, Sister Elisabeth is punished by being forced to slide across a concrete floor on her stomach while licking the floor.  If you look closely, you can see that a narrow, clear covering has been placed on the floor and that Catherine is sliding her tongue across that covering (not across the actual floor, thank goodness).
  • The NoShame DVD purports to be an uncut version of the film and includes Italian and English trailers.  The trailers present two scenes that are different than what is seen in the "uncut" feature presentation.  First, in the scene in which Sister Elisabeth first sneaks out to meet Diego, the trailer shows a more pulled-back shot of Catherine's back as her top is removed.  In the movie, the camera is much closer, showing little of her back.  Second, in the movie's scene in which Carmella hears screaming in the night and rushes to Sister Elisabeth's door, Sister Elisabeth opens the door to reveal that one of the young nuns is in her bed and quickly pulls a sheet up to cover the front of her body.  In the trailers, the nun in the bed does not quickly pull a sheet up to block any view of her body, but is instead laying on her back topless.
  • I briefly watched a bit of the film in the English dubbed version.  It appears that the actors mouthed their lines in English for later dubbing.  That seems to be typical for many Italian films of the era.  It sounds to me like Catherine did her own dubbing for the Italian version, but I do not think that she did her own dubbing for the English version.  It is often hard for me to tell, but it does not sound like her to me, although the voice sounds close to hers.  It is not ridiculously different.                                                                                                                   
Here is the Italian trailer (though the youtube poster has edited the trailer by placing a white box over any nudity):
 The film was shot at the Palatino Studios in the old part of Rome in the late summer of 1973 and was originally scheduled to have Joan Collins in the Mother Superior role.
  • The August 9, 1973 Variety reported:  "Suzy Kendall replaces Joan Collins in the Splendor-PAC production 'Diary Of A Cloistered Nun'."
  • The August 22, 1973 Variety reported:   "Femme principals in 'Story of a Cloistered Nun' are Catherine Spaak, Suzy Kendall and young newcomer Eleonora Giorgi."
IMDB shows a release date of November 9, 1973 in Italy.  The film was reviewed in the November 23, 1973 edition of Variety (making no mention of Catherine), based on a viewing at the PAC Screening Room in Rome.  It lists a running time of 97 minutes.  The tepid review states in part:

"This in the strict anticlerical vein with a twist all its own-a 16th century soap opera in almost every word of dialog, but with sex as the main ingredient and depravity the order of the day.

Lesbian lechery and potboiler simplicity will help 'Cloistered Nun' in many markets with undiscriminating and voyeur audiences.  Also giving it a lift is the lush facade contributed by cinematographer Armando Nannuzzi and art director Pietro Filippone.  Piero Piccioni's music is much too majestic for this trite sexploitationer.

Cast standouts are Suzy Kendall...and newcomer Eleanora Giorgi...

Domenico Paolella started the naughty nun trend in Italo cinema last year with 'The Nuns of Sant'Arcangelo.'  Sequel is without preceding film's spark of historical validity, creative backgrounds and rites and the excitement of tortured intimacy of convent life."

IMDB indicates that the film was released in an English-dubbed version as The Unholy Convent in the U.S. in March of 1975, but this one sheet poster is the only information that I have seen about that release.

I have not seen any information indicating how the film fared at the box office.  I suspect that it made a lot of money for the producers, because as shown later in this post, it was released theatrically in a number of countries and has also received many home video releases.

Here are some on-set photos:

Italian posters and fotobustas:

A Belgian poster:

A Spanish poster and lobby cards:

An Argentinian poster:

German posters:

German program and lobby card:

A Brazilian poster:

A Yugoslavian poster:

Soundtrack Album or CD:

Magazine Photos:

Magazine cover and photo layout:

The film has received several home video releases.

Italian DVDs (2008, 2004, and unknown date):

Italian VHS:



German DVDs:

German VHS:


Danish VHS:

Spanish VHS:

Greek VHS:

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