What Nunsploitation films say about the Catholic Church

A scene from

Considering how prevalent images of demon-possessed and sexually “perverse” nuns are on screen – from “Black Narcissus” from 1947 to “Agnes” this month – you might wonder how convents do. have not all been struck by lightning to date.

In September, members of the Catholic Church even protested outside of the New York Film Festival premiere of writer-director Paul Verhoeven’s “Benedetta”, calling it a “blasphemous lesbian nun movie.” But this unease and focus on the actual sexuality of the 17th-century nun, and not her fuller and more complicated portrayal in the film, might be part of the reason nunsploitation persists.

This sub-genre of exploitation films that often distort or manipulate the image of nuns has only gained popularity in recent decades. And it’s not just due to their sexual themes.

Of course, Verhoeven augments the scenes in which Benedetta (Virginie Efira) and her mystical colleague Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) have sex and the first fornicator with a small wooden statue of the Virgin Mary. And the first act of writer-director Mickey Reece’s rambling new horror “Agnes”, in which the eponymous young nun (Hayley McFarland) almost bites a priest’s nose, is far more memorable than this final act, which explores a entirely different character spiritual ambiguity.

But in truth, there’s a lot more going on in these stories than even their obscene trailers, and critics describing them as “saucy” and “horn, “to transmit. As exacerbated as these films may be, they are intended as an affront to what is considered by some be a patriarchal system that suppresses women’s outrage, sexuality and other aspects of their free will.

“Benedetta” highlights a real exception to the chaste and honorable image of nuns by revisiting the story of a woman who crossed the line and was severely condemned for it. Meanwhile, the imperfect “Agnes” doesn’t seem to quite know what story she wants to tell, although she does continue to point out Agnes’ grotesque rage that could replace deeper frustration.

Film critic and cultural journalist Alissa Wilkinson at Vox recently wrote: “[Nun stories] Usually rely on the same dramatic tension: the inherent potential, whether exercised or not, for women in organized religious orders to pose a threat to the male-dominated religious hierarchy. “

In other words, their intention is to undermine expectations about how a nun should behave and respond to alleged injustices in the church, an antithesis to the more accepted image of women who are perfectly content to live a life. cloistered with like-minded people. “A convent might look like a feminine utopia, but one which would depend on men to survive,” adds Wilkinson.

There is certainly some truth to this. As Holly Wilson, a philosophy professor at Louisiana State University at Alexandria explains, the church has affirmed her as a teacher, but she cannot become a priest due to gender restrictions. Yet Wilson, who is Catholic, tells HuffPost that non-exploitation films are reductive and prove just how storytellers, most of whom are men, understand or even take an interest in life in the convent.

This is especially true when it comes to a nun’s vow of chastity.

Daphne Patakia, at left, as Bartolomea and Virginie Efira as Benedetta in Paul Verhoeven & # x002019; s

Daphne Patakia, left, as Bartolomea and Virginie Efira as Benedetta in Paul Verhoeven

“I really believe it’s not clear what it means to sublimate your sexuality in a healthy way,” Wilson said. She also points to the “sexual revolution” as a phenomenon that has exacerbated these images. “[Filmmakers] probably never understood the idea that this is an opportunity to draw closer to God and sublimate your natural desires for a higher purpose.

Wilson claims that many nuns voluntarily enter the convent with little or no resentment towards what this life means, despite what so many of these stories seem to imply. “These films emphasize that nuns are not capable of [remain chaste] because they burst, ”she continues. “And he’s demon possessed and hysterical and has a lot of visions, and so on. To me, this is all a stereotype that women are overly emotional. “

It’s just. “Agnes”, for example, doesn’t bother to explore what leads to the nun’s hysteria, simply mentioning that a certain male priest has engaged in sexual misconduct, the type of act that would have could shake her faith and make her vulnerable to evil. But this is purely a theory based on a peripheral scenario of the film. When it comes to her spiritually tortured nun, “Agnes” reduces her to a monster to be feared and never understood by the public.

Wilson offers another explanation why some nuns, especially younger convents like Agnes, might go astray and show malicious qualities that have nothing to do with the church’s fear or objection to it. women who challenge their values.

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

While this is clearly understood by members of the church, it is easy to see how filmmakers interpret repression, which by definition involves force, as something that must be confronted in their work, even at times awkwardly. But for Wilson, these films also project an idea that a nun’s wishes are impossible to fulfill.

“Non-sploitation films say, ‘Women cannot rise to this level. They cannot live by principle. They cannot live by the evangelical counsels. They will always fail.

Well, there are cases where they deliberately and deliberately fail – like the story of Benedetta Carlini in the Verhoeven 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 rank to the rank of abbess until she is discovered and severely punished.

Although “Benedetta” suggests that her affair with Bartolomea was the catalyst that ultimately turned the church against her, Wilson dismisses the idea that her being a lesbian had anything to do with her condemnation. “I think we think of sexuality in terms of violation and assertion and as part of our identity more than they would have thought at the time,” she says.

Or maybe the fact that Benedetta claimed she was possessed by a male angel caused her superiors to look beyond? Wilson reflects on this, but adds, “I think there was… maybe less awareness of female homoeroticism or more tolerance for it or something like that than there was. male homoerotic experience, because it was more widespread and more visible.

As salacious as these films may be, films like “Benedetta” and “Agnes” emphasize that stories of non-exploitation can be eternally pondered, even debated, as people of all faiths continue to engage in the practices of non-exploitation. Catholic Church. Can they conjure up uncomfortable truths? Absoutely. But for Wilson and other devotees, they shouldn’t be seen as the only representation of a denomination that remains as complex as ever.

“Is there a role to play in criticizing the church? ” she asks. “Yes, but the church is not monolithic. Because there are good things about it that he embraces and allows him to rise above his own egocentricity into something bigger and bigger, more noble and sublime.

And yet, there is another side to be talked about in the same breath: “At the same time, it is made up of fallible human beings.

This article originally appeared on The HuffPost and has been updated.

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