Cinematic habits are second to nun

Show me a cloistered community from which men are excluded, and I’ll show you chaps who look on this as a challenge, provocation or titillation – sometimes all three simultaneously. How else can one explain male filmmakers’ perennial fascination with what goes on behind convent walls? And yes, there is a film with exactly that title – Behind Convent Walls, directed by Walerian Borowczyk, the Polish director described in his 2006 New York Times obituary as “a genius who also happened to be a pornographer”.

But now it’s the turn of naughty Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven, of Showgirls fame, who has stepped up to bat with Benedetta, which on its first screening at last year’s Cannes Film Festival was immediately dubbed “The Lesbian Nun Movie”. To be fair, the non-fiction book on which it was based, Immodest Acts by Judith Brown, was subtitled The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy. So fair game, I say.

What is it about nuns? A cursory perusal of iMDb’s keywords throws up 2220 films and TV shows with nun content, as opposed to a mere 907 featuring monks. “Nunsploitation” is a recognised genre, whereas “monksploitation” is not. Where are all the queer monk films? They do exist, but you have to dig quite hard to find them. There are probably more films about abused altar boys than monkhood in general. Give or take adaptations of The Name of the Rose or the gothic classic The Monk or the cowled albino hitman from The Da Vinci Code, monks just don’t seem to excite the (male) imagination the way nuns do, though I can attest that Belgian monks are skilled at brewing delicious Trappist beers and deserve to be commemorated in films on the basis of that alone.

Mundane nun business doesn’t make for thrilling drama, so cloistered neurosis tends to be the order of the day

Nuns aren’t restricted to the Christian religion, nor do they all wear habits and cut themselves off from secular society, but for cinematic purposes there’s nothing like classic nun duds, usually (but not always) black and white, with wimple and coif. Film nuns tend to fall into four often overlapping categories: serious, sexy, scary and faux. Black Narcissus (1947), for example, is a serious nun film about faith, culture and repression, but all it takes is an encounter with Mr Dean, who rides around the Himalayas in unfeasibly short shorts, and cowabunga! Sister Ruth ditches her wimple, applies scarlet lipstick and tries to push Sister Superior off a mountain.

Mundane nun business doesn’t make for thrilling drama, so cloistered neurosis tends to be the order of the day. It’s taken to hair-raising extremes in The Devils (1971), where hunchbacked Sister Jeanne’s pash on hot priest Urbain Grandier leads to an orgy of forced enemas and masturbatory mayhem, capped by real life condemnation from an outraged Vatican. But serious and scary, thanks to a perfect storm of historical repression, and corruption both religious and political.

Films in which nuns abuse positions of authority can be even scarier, since many are set within our own lifetimes. I am lucky enough to have attended non-Catholic schools, where the harshest punishment was having chalk flung at you when you got your sums wrong; less fortunate chums attest that nuns can be brutal administrators of corporal punishment. This can be played for laughs in, say, The Blues Brothers, where Sister Mary Stigmata lays about Jake and Elwood with a ruler. Or it can represent a real-life national scandal, as in The Magdalene Sisters, a fictional account of horrific abuse suffered at the hands of sadistic sisters by young women incarcerated in Ireland’s infamous Magdalene laundries, the last of which closed as recently as 1996.

Let us skip over the subsection of musical nuns in The Sound of Music (best Nun vs. Nazi movie ever made), two biopics of The Singing Nun, only the second of which (in other words, not the one with Debbie Reynolds) tackles her lesbianism and suicide, and Sister Act, in which a lounge singer hides from the mob in a convent, where she spices up the boring nun choir with pop songs. Nun outfits positively encourage fugitives to disguise themselves, sometimes for comic effect in Nuns on the Run or Paddington 2, where Hugh Grant makes a very comely sister, but also for more sinister purposes, as in The Four Musketeers, in which Milady pretends to be a nun so she can throttle D’Artagnan’s sweetheart with a rosary. Or The Lady Vanishes, where the heroine twigs that the nun isn’t a nun at all, because “they don’t wear high heels”.  Trust a woman to check out the shoes.

As for Benedetta, Verhoeven is a past master of the “Why not both?” principle, luring you in with promises of cyborg cops (RoboCop) or giant extraterrestrial insects (Starship Troopers), and then pulling off a switcheroo where it’s only later that you realise you’ve been watching a film about capitalism or fascism or colonialism. And so it goes with Benedetta, in which the sisters are sexy and scary and serious, and arguably even faux as well. By all means come for the lesbian nuns and the Virgin Mary dildo, but stay for the conflicts of faith, religious power politics and acerbic analysis of women’s place in society.

Anne Billson is a film critic, novelist and photographer

Arts & Culture

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