Young Maria catches the eye of a sleazy priest, Father Vicente, who bullies her mother into handing over her savings and sticking her into a special convent. Once there, Mother Alma abuses Maria, and Father Vicente masturbates to her not-that-sexy confession (considering all the naked nun action he can get, he’s a pretty hard-up guy). It seems poor innocent Maria has been sent to a Satanic convent, where the nuns go at it, hot and heavy, and she is destined to be raped by the Devil himself… Wait a minute. That’s just some guy in a red jumpsuit with an obviously fake horn plastered on the middle of his forehead. Well that’s just stupid. Oh, sorry. Back to the synopsis. Maria wants only to escape, but Alma and Vicente can’t let that happen, so it’s time to call upon the Portuguese Inquisition, because, no one expects the Portuguese Inquisition. really. No one does. Did you? I know I didn’t. Spanish? Sure, all the time, but not Portuguese.
A key movie in the Nunsploitation movement, Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun is a frustrating affair. There’s so much good on screen, including beautiful locations (the convent is amazing), lusciously framed shots, engaging characters, compelling plot elements, and important themes. But every good point is shattered by a huge mistake, multiple minor errors, or flagrant stupidity. The script is the main culprit, which feels like a first draft written by moderately bright ferrets, but editing is a close second. I can’t imagine that a professional had anything to do with the final cut. But then this movie has been through so many censors’ hands, it is hard to figure who is responsible for what made it to the screen.
The setup is for a film about the repression and hypocrisy of Christianity, particularly the Catholic church. Father Vincente and Mother Alma are the representatives of the Church, and they are a vile pair. There’s also the nearby inquisition, which tortures and burns innocent girls as witches when (as the prince of Portugal says) everyone knows there are no such things. But Vincente and Alma turn out to be Satanists, and their evil is exactly what the Church is trying to save us from. As for the Inquisition, on the suggestion of “Hey, you’ve got the wrong villain, let her go and grab those bad guys instead,” it immediately changes its plan. Yes, this is a humble Inquisition that’s more than happy to take outside suggestions. And, they will be the ones penalizing the truly guilty, so it looks like the only flaw of the Church is poor judgment. Sure, that’s a indictment of sorts, but not up there with cheating an old woman of her life’s savings and raping a girl.
For twenty minutes we’re given a serious drama with exploitation elements (and readers of this site will know I do not use that term in a pejorative sense), but then a series of soft-core sex scenes slide in. It isn’t that I’m troubled by the sex, but rather how out of place and poorly done the scenes are. The mother superior stripping down the acolyte and playing with her—sure, that fits in. But a nun writhing nude on a bed, moaning for Satan to give her a baby while two nuns feel her legs, comes out of nowhere and leads to nothing. It is also where editing destroys what little of value might have been there. If we’re going to get a sexy, soft-core moment, then give it to us, but it’s obvious that the actresses weren’t onboard. So, we get an orgasming nun, with any body part that’s meant to excite covered by white cloth or the intervening body of another nun, and then we’re tossed into close-ups of nipples and genitals. I don’t know whose body parts those are, but certainly not the girl I saw on a bed a few seconds earlier. Soon after, the story stops again for a lesbian scene between two irrelevant nuns. Shouldn’t a major character have been involved? And perhaps some setup would have been nice. School of the Holy Beast and Alucarda manage lesbian nun displays that are both sexy and fit into the movie. It can be done, just not here.
Then there is the matter of the Devil. Nothing in the film indicates that powerful occult influences are at work, just nasty people. But then the Devil appears in the silliest costume you can imagine, to rape Maria. Hint to filmmakers: If you want a chilling, emotional, horrific rape scene, do not bring in a guy in red spandex with a hoodie. So, this ludicrous apparition is the Devil? If the nuns have the power to call the Prince of Darkness, shouldn’t there be some evil occult goings-on in the rest of the film?
And in case you were getting interested in the plot, the ending negates anything of value. All things are wrapped up by happenstance. The right guy comes along at the right moment and finds Maria’s letter to God (thus the title), and encounters no further difficulties. That’s exciting. You could try and say that this was God’s hand fixing things, but…don’t. Just don’t.
My rating is based upon the version that I saw, and it is inferior to what should exist, somewhere, in several ways. It was dubbed (with no option for the original German) with the expected poor quality voices. There were optional subtitles that often varied in minor ways from the audio, such as Alma remarking that Maria is not wearing bloomers while she says stockings in the audio track. Hmmm. There is a difference there. Far worse is the removal of any nudity by star Susan Hemingway, apparently because her character was underage (fifteen or sixteen, depending on the translation). This also cuts a majority of her torture, and thus, cuts the heart out of the film. The movie clocked in at 89 minutes, the length given for the longer “directors cut,” so I don’t know where to find the film in a more complete state.
Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun is a film that is going to bother me for sometime. I can’t reject it as junk because there is the potential for excellence. Perhaps there is some yet to be found cut that removes the devil, alters the soft-core elements, adjusts the ending, and reinstates Hemingway’s nudity. That would be a film to see. I’m afraid that’s too much to hope for.