Love Letters Of A Portuguese Nun Review
It's not that Love Letters Of A Portuguese Nun is without aspects worth noting - this is a Jess Franco movie set in a convent so be it devilry, breasts, lesbians or beasts that you're after, there's enough here to keep you contented - but the name of the actor who plays Satan jumps out of the cast list. If you'll pardon the leap between Heaven and Hell, God knows what else Herbert Fux was in but if it wasn't hardcore pornography, I'll be forever disappointed.
So, Fux stars as Satan and in case you're wondering what the ruler of Hell is doing in a film about nuns, just keep in mind that this is a Jess Franco movie and that God is as close to the minds of these nuns as the hands of the novices are far from between the legs of their Mother Superior. Young Maria Rosalea (Susan Hemingway) is watched one day by a lecherous and disapproving priest as she walks in the forest with a young man and, by expressing to her mother (Aida Vargas) that his interest is only in her welfare, Father Vicente (William Berger) brings Maria to a convent run by Mother Superior (Ana Zanatti). On arriving at the convent, Maria soon sees that it is not God that the nuns worship and following torture, rape and Father Vicente masturbating as he listens to her confession, Satan appears to Maria to rape her.
Very little of that description would suggest that the titular love letters feature even a little but Franco puts a theme of redemption throughout the film, with Maria seeking a way out of the convent via a letter that she writes to God. At heart, this film is Franco pitting himself against the Catholic Church with Father Vicente and the Mother Superior cast as the authority of the church and Maria Rosalea playing the innocent, God-fearing Catholic girl, lost within its corruption. But in playing his satire with an eye for the obvious, Franco loses whatever intelligence his film might have had in his rush to include the next scene of lechery, torture or devilry. It is this last element of the film that Franco never allows to pass without mention, for not only does he bookend scenes or worship and prayer with a shot of a painting of the devil embracing a priest but has his nuns orgasm to the cry of, "Hellfire!", leaving you in no doubt that it is Satan and not God who occupies the minds of the nuns.
Given that their subject matter and setting are so similar, it's easy to compare Love Letters Of A Portuguese Nun to Ken Russell's The Devils. Yet, as excessive as The Devils often is - and no scene fits that description than the 'rape of Christ' scene that was cut from version released in 1971 - it did present the corruption of the convent within some kind of historical context and showed that, from minor events at the beginning of the film, it grew until it consumed the town of Loudon. With Love Letters Of A Portuguese Nun, Franco boldly states that there is nothing in the Church but a heart of evil and a corruption that spreads out to its very edges, leaving only the poor, uneducated peasants untouched by its wickedness, which, as you'll find on watching the entire film, is too simple a concept even for a Franco movie.
Anyone coming to Love Letters Of A Portuguese Nun from one of Franco's similar women-in-prison films will be surprised at how beautiful this film is, with the convent being a richly gothic location. The contrast between the luxury of the convent and what happens within it is similar to the excesses of Salo but where Pasolini shot his film with a distant, unflinching eye, Franco puts his camera within the action and never closer than when he places it between the Mother Superior's legs for a lingering shot of her vagina that stretches the BBFC's ILOOLI rule to its limit. If, though, Franco's cast of nuns are not as beautiful as the building they inhabit, think of this as him being left with a limited number of young actresses willing to drop their wimples on his command.
When Fux finally appears as the devil, he doesn't disappoint, favouring the scarlet-red jumpsuit, sewn-on tail and horned hood that's been a popular favourite amongst pantomime devils since biblical times. You can only assume that the costumier had trouble with the order from Franco that asked for 25 wimples, some clothes for the peasantry, gowns for five priests, jerkins and stockings for the aristocracy and Inquisition and a devil outfit. Were I to receive that request, I'd think, "What a party!" and send the package off in the hope of receiving an invite but Franco must have been livid when Fux's costume appeared.
Fux doesn't really have much to do as the devil other than show up, bend Hemingway over and, well, live up to his name but, thanks to the BBFC, 6m15s of cuts were required under the 1978 Protection of Children Act. We do see close-ups of Fux's face as he gurns behind her but had he repeatedly stuck his tongue out and rolled his eyes, he couldn't have played this more for comedy unless he'd had Benny Hill in the background slapping a bald man on the head.
Despite Franco offering a happy ending for young Maria Rosalea, his choice of the aristocracy, namely a young Portuguese prince, to rescue the novice is a strange one given that it is only when he assures the Inquisition of the guilt of Father Vicente and the Mother Superior that Maria is rescued. As it is, Love Letters Of A Portuguese Nun ends with the prince saying little more than, "Hold up...she's not guilty, they are!" as he points to the spot that Vicente and the Mother Superior had recently departed. With the Inquisition backing down faster than you can say, "Oh, looks like we made a mistake, then. After them!", it's an odd conclusion to make, with Franco saying that the Catholic Church is, after all that, really quite reasonable and two people do not make the actions of the Vatican entirely unreasonable. Given the nature of Catholic mothers, I can only assume that old Mrs Franco had something to do with this, asking her son, "'ere Jess, 'ow am I supposed to face Father Ballastrados at mass on Sunday if he hears of you and that film. Give it a happy ending, eh? For you poor, old mother who slaved from the moment you were born after two days of labour pains and more blood...etc." before feelings of guilt led to him going back to the editing suite. Catholic guilt is truly a terrible thing.
Having only watched one film from the Jess Franco collection before this - Ilsa, The Wicked Warden - I was expecting another grainy, bleak-looking transfer but was surprised to see that Love Letters Of A Portuguese Nun is a richly colourful film with a great transfer. There are occasional moments of softness to the print but there is very little damage to the image and no digital noise visible on the image.
The film is only presented in either English or German with English subtitles in a mono soundtrack but it suits the film perfectly well. There is very little difference between the English subtitles and the English dub and there is no noticeable background noise.
The list of bonus features included on this DVD release of Love Letters Of A Portuguese Nun are:
Production Stills: Twenty still images, taken from the film, have been included on this DVD release.
Cast & Crew: Filmographies and biographies are available for actors Susan Hemingway, Ana Zanatti, William Berger and Herbert Fux, producer Erwin Dietrich and director Jess Franco.
The Jess Franco Collection: This short bonus feature is a two-page summary of the films included in Anchor Bay's boxset of the films of Jess Franco
Interviews (13m09s, 1.78:1 Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): Erwin Dietrich, Jess Franco, Lina Romay and Herbert Fux are interviewed for this feature, with the only mentions of Love Letters Of A Portuguese Nun coming at the very end via contributions from Franco and Fux. These interviews were conducted in German but English subtitles are available.
Trailers : This DVD release includes trailers both for this film and for four other Jess Franco films that are available from Anchor Bay UK - Barbed Wire Dolls, Blue Rita, Jack The Ripper and Ilsa, The Wicked Warden. The trailer for Blue Rita gives absolutely no clue as to what the film might be about - sex, spies, sci-fi...it could be any or all of these - but it does look the most intriguing of the five, whereas the one for Love Letters Of A Portuguese Nun suggests via short clips what the BBFC cut from the film.
DVD Restoration Feature (16m49s, 1.78:1 Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): This is a short feature on the restoration of Franco's version of Jack The Ripper and has been included on all DVD releases in Anchor Bay's Jess Franco Collection.
It could have been much worse than what it is for other than the more outrageous moments of torture, devilry and lust between nuns, which, truth be told, becomes a little tiresome after a while, this isn't a bad film.
Whilst not being familiar enough with the rest of Franco's work to know whether he was genuinely talented, Franco could have done with reining in the excesses to produce a more thoughtful work and in casting Susan Hemingway as Maria Rosalea, he had an actress who was capable of sensitively playing an innocent young girl but in surrounding her with the grim excesses of life under the Inquisition, she looks lost. Whilst the film has its moments - the scene where Hemingway writes her letter to God is actually quite touching, which is surely a rarity in a Franco film - there's too much of Franco's exploitation past to take this in any direction but to cult nights.