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Visions of Ecstasy
Nigel Wingrove's 1990 short film Visions Of Ecstasy is infamous in its native England for having the esteemed honor of being the only film ever banned for blasphemy by the BBFC when it was submitted for classification. While the BBFC would have accepted it with certain cuts made, those cuts would have cut the running time of the picture in half and the film was rejected a classification certificate on the grounds that it contained 'blasphemous libel.' Wingrove did take the issue to court (and lost) but it wasn't until the UK's blasphemy laws were repealed in 2010 that we resubmitted the picture, at which point it was passed uncut in January of 2012.
So what's the movie all about? The film follows the writings of a nun named St. Teresa of Avila (played in the film by Louise Downie) who believed in 1559 that she was physically visited by Jesus Christ (played by Dan Fox) and who wrote extensively about the "devotions of ecstasy" and finding a perfect union with God. The actual St. Teresa started to feel conflicted when some around her told her that her theories were sinful and so she punished herself, but eventually came around and she later had a vision where was speared by a seraph, something which caused in her a mix of pleasure and pain. She went on to write extensively about other subjects and was posthumously canonized and made a Doctor Of The Church but this part of her life where she was experiencing such vivid visions remains... unusual - and thus we have the premise of Wingrove's film.
The short film takes those writings and gives them a highly sexualized cinematic context. We see her meet Christ on the cross and begin to touch him and eventually indulge in some rather kinky sex with him, still bound to the cross, but not before we see her touch herself, rub blood across her breasts and indulge in some lesbianism with another nun. The whole thing lasts just nineteen minutes but it caused an uproar in certain religious circles for obvious reasons.
Is it all much ado about nothing? That's obviously going to depend on your own beliefs and your own thoughts on the worth of artistic expression versus the very concept of blasphemy. With that said, it's a fairly erotically charged piece of work, out to bust taboos while leaving little to the imagination. The film is shot with loads of style and great use of color. The influence of Wingrove's continental counterparts in the nunsploitation genre seems obvious but so too does the work of Japanese filmmakers like Norifumi Suzuki, his seminal Convent Of The Holy Beast in particular.
Louise Downie is genuinely beautiful and has quite a powerful screen presence here. Easily offended religious types won't necessarily see past the content to appreciate that but Wingrove's fetishized take on St. Teresa's most infamous moment is rather well made. It's more of a performance piece put on film than a traditional narrative but for what it is, it works and is worth seeing for those with an interest in such content. For those who don't fall into that category, feel free to exercise your right not to watch it.The DVD:
Visions Of Ecstasy arrives on DVD in a good looking fullframe transfer. Colors in particular look really nice here, interesting shades of green and red are used throughout in very atmospheric and strange ways. Black levels are solid and shadow detail isn't bad but keep in mind that this is a low budget production and that it doesn't always have the gloss or polish as a bigger film might have. This doesn't really hurt the picture, however, and the disc is properly authored so that there aren't any problems with compression artifacts or noise reduction to note.Sound:
The Dolby Digital 2.0 sound mix is the only one available on the disc, there are no alternate language or subtitles provided. This is a fairly minimalist sound mix, mostly just a score, but it gets the job done. levels are properly balanced and there are no issues with hiss or distortion of note.Extras:
Given that the feature attraction is only nineteen minutes long it's nice to see that Redemption and Kino have jammed this disc up with some impressive extra features starting with some of Wingrove's other films. His first film, an eight minute short called Axel made in 1988 is here as is Faustine, a two minute short that he made in 1990 that features Eileen Daily, who also pops up in Sacred Flesh Speaking of which...
Probably more interesting to most, however, is the inclusion of his first feature length film, the seventy-five minute long Sacred Flesh. The movie takes place way back when in medieval times where, at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, we meet a Mother Superior named Sister Elizabeth (Sally Tremaine). Her behavior as of late has been a little strange as she's gotten quite antagonistic towards her fellow sisters, accusing them of immorality while seemingly coming close to committing some specifically carnal sins herself. These odd and angry ways prompt the nuns of the convent to assume that she's fallen victim to demonic possession, and Sister Mary (Moyna Cope) is sent off to the convent to investigate. What she discovers is strange and surreal to say the least, not to mention quite taboo considering that all of the women housed in the convent have taken the sworn oath of chastity...
Filled to the brim with steamy sexy set pieces and a few moments of shocking violence, this film is a lot more intelligent than it might seem if you're to judge it based only on the exploitative surface that it bares. The requirements of the 'nasty nun' sub-genre are all here: molestation, lesbianism, blasphemy, whipping, and other perverse acts of sometimes self inflicted torture; but Wingrove's film also brings up some interesting questions, particularly in relation to the aforementioned and requisite vow of chastity that the sisters have all taken and how it relates to their effectiveness as servants of God.
Performance wise, we're in pretty good shape here. The two female leads are convincing enough both in their delivery and their appearance, though sometimes some of the costumes used in the film for the supporting characters exposes the low budget of the film. Thankfully the cinematography and shot composition created for the film is so good that it almost completely engrosses you into what's happening, even when some of the costume flubs attempt to pull you out. Wingrove's film pays close attention to detail and makes excellent use of the sets, the props, and the ample amount of flesh on display to deliver a gorgeous looking symphony of depravity.
Sacred Flesh is presented in 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen and in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo - quality is fine across the board though the commentary track with Wingrove that was included on the previous domestic DVD release from Heretic Films has not been carried over to this disc. We do, however, get a decent interview with Wingrove that was recorded in 1990 and which deals with the controversy surrounding his earlier films. We also get a quick selection of outtakes from Visions Of Ecstasy and some clips from the nunsploitation documentary Hail Mary! A Brief Peek At Nunsploitation, an interesting piece that features input from Wingrove. Presented in non-anamorphic widescreen, this documentary features some great images and clips from nunsploitation films from all over the world. The documentary addresses some of the controversy around these films as well as the appeal before letting Wingrove take center stage and talk about his thoughts and experiences in the genre and about Sacred Flesh in particular. Those equipped with a DVD-Rom drive can also put the disc into their computer and access a thirty-six page essay on Wingrove's battles with the BBFC entitled Finding Ecstasy On The Road To Redemption. Menus and chapter selection are also included.Final Thoughts:
Visions Of Ecstasy may be pretty short and not worth the asking price on its own but the inclusion of the feature length Sacred Flesh and the other shorts makes this a really well rounded set. The audio and video quality are pretty good and the content itself sure to intrigue anyone with an interest in nasty nun cinema. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.