What Nunsploitation Films Are Saying About The Catholic Church

Considering how prevalent photographs of demonically possessed and sexually “perverse” nuns are on display — from 1947’s “Black Narcissus” to this month’s “Agnes” — you may surprise how convents haven’t all been struck by lightning by now.

In September, members of the Catholic Church even protested outdoors the New York Film Festival premiere of writer-director Paul Verhoeven’s “Benedetta,” calling it a “blasphemous lesbian nun movie.” But that discomfort and concentrate on the real-life Seventeenth-century nun’s sexuality, and never the fuller, extra difficult portrait of her within the film, could possibly be a part of the rationale why nunsploitation persists.

This subgenre of exploitation movies that always distort or manipulate the picture of nuns have solely elevated in reputation over the previous couple of many years. And it’s not solely because of their sexual themes.

Sure, Verhoeven ratchets up the scenes wherein Benedetta (Virginie Efira) and fellow mystic Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) have intercourse and the previous fornicates with a small wood statue of the Virgin Mary. And the primary act in writer-director Mickey Reece’s disjointed new horror “Agnes,” wherein the eponymous bedeviled younger nun (Hayley McFarland) almost bites off a priest’s nostril, is much extra memorable than the latter act, which explores a wholly completely different character’s non secular ambiguity.


But in reality, there’s much more happening in these narratives than even their lewder trailers, and opinions describing them as “saucy” and “horny,” convey. As heightened as these movies will be, they’re meant to be an affront to what is considered by some to be a patriarchal system that suppresses feminine indignation, sexuality and different facets of their company.

“Benedetta” highlights a real-life exception to nuns’ chaste and honorable picture by revisiting the story of a girl who stepped method out of line, and was harshly sentenced for it. Meanwhile, the flawed “Agnes” doesn’t actually appear to know what story it needs to inform, although it retains pointing to Agnes’ grotesque rage that could possibly be a stand-in for a deeper frustration.

Film critic and tradition reporter Alissa Wilkinson at Vox recently wrote: “[Nun stories] usually draw on the same dramatic tension: the inherent potential, whether or not it’s exercised, for women in organized religious orders to pose a threat to male-dominated religious hierarchy.”

In different phrases, their intention is to undermine expectations of how a nun ought to behave and reply to presumed injustices within the church, an antithesis to the extra accepted picture of ladies who’re completely content material residing a cloistered life with like-minded people. “A convent could look like a women’s utopia, but one that relied on men to survive,” Wilkinson provides.


There is actually reality in that. As Holly Wilson, a professor of philosophy at Louisiana State University at Alexandria, explains, the church affirmed her as a instructor, however she can’t grow to be a priest because of gender restrictions. Still, Wilson, who’s Catholic, tells HuffPost that nunsploitation movies are reductive and show how little storytellers, most of whom are male, perceive and even care to research convent life.

That’s very true in relation to a nun’s vow of chastity.

Daphne Patakia, left, as Bartolomea and Virginie Efira as Benedetta in Paul Verhoeven’s Daphne Patakia, left, as Bartolomea and Virginie Efira as Benedetta in Paul Verhoeven’s “Benedetta.”

Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Film


“I really do believe that it’s an unclarity about what it means to sublimate your sexuality in a wholesome way,” Wilson says. She additionally factors to the “sexual revolution” as a phenomenon that exacerbated these photographs. “[Filmmakers] probably never caught on to the idea that this is an opportunity to draw close to God and to sublimate your natural desires for a higher purpose.”

Wilson asserts that many nuns enter the convent willingly with little to no resentment towards what this life means, regardless of what so many of those tales appear to suggest. “These movies are emphasizing that nuns are not able to [remain chaste] because they’re breaking out,” she continues. “And it being demon-possessed and hysterical and having a lot of visions, and so on. To me, all that is a stereotype of women as overly emotional.”

That’s honest. “Agnes,” for instance, doesn’t trouble to discover what results in the nun’s hysteria, merely mentioning {that a} sure male priest has engaged in sexual misconduct, the kind of act that might have rattled her religion and made her weak to evil. But that is purely a concept primarily based on a peripheral storyline within the movie. When it involves its spiritually tortured nun, “Agnes” reduces her to a monster to be feared and by no means understood by the viewers.

Wilson gives one other rationalization for why some nuns, particularly younger ones newer to convents like Agnes, may lose their method and exhibit malevolent qualities that don’t have anything to do with the church’s concern of or objection to girls who problem their values.

“Demonic activity can also be a psychological thing that has to do with repression, but of anger and frustration,” she says. “If you’re just learning what obedience and chastity and poverty [are] about, there can be anger and frustration because your natural desires are frustrated.”

While it’s plainly understood by members of the church, it’s straightforward to see how filmmakers interpret repression, which by definition implies power, as one thing that must be confronted of their work, nevertheless clunkily at instances. But for Wilson, these movies additionally mission an thought {that a} nun’s vows are unimaginable to uphold.

“The nunsploitation films are saying, ‘Women cannot rise up to that level. They cannot live by principles. They can’t live by evangelical counsels. They’re going to always fail.’”

Well, there are instances the place they’re wildly and willfully unsuccessful — like Benedetta Carlini’s story in Verhoeven’s movie. In addition to breaking her vow of chastity, Benedetta commits heresy and manipulates her church into believing that she was possessed by Jesus, a fraud that elevates her rating to abbess till she is came upon and severely punished.

Though “Benedetta” means that her affair with Bartolomea was the catalyst that lastly turned the church in opposition to her, Wilson rejects the notion that her being a lesbian had something to do together with her condemnation. “I think we think of sexuality in terms of violation and affirmation and as part of our identity more than they would have thought of it then,” she says.

Or perhaps the truth that Benedetta claimed that she was possessed by a male angel made her superiors look past it? Wilson considers this, however provides: “I think that there was … perhaps less awareness of female homoeroticism or more tolerance of it or something than there was of male homoerotic experience, because that was more prevalent and more visible.”

As salacious as these movies will be, films like “Benedetta” and “Agnes” underscore that nunsploitation tales will be eternally contemplated, even debated, as folks of all faiths proceed to interact with the practices of the Catholic Church. Can they create up uncomfortable truths? Absolutely. But for Wilson and different devotees, they shouldn’t be thought-about the only illustration of a denomination that continues to be as complicated as ever.

“Is there a role to criticize the church?” she asks. “Yes, but the church is not monolithic. Because there’s good things about it that it embraces and allows for the rising above one’s own self-centeredness into something larger and greater, more noble, and sublime.”

And but, there’s one other facet that needs to be spoken of in the identical breath: “At the same time, it’s made up of human beings who are fallible.”

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