Sister Maria is a pure and gentle soul, until she meets the Devil. She fights his influence, but evil is stronger, leading her to seduce another nun, attempt to have sex with a young teenage boy, aid in a suicide, and murder multiple people. But is that really the effect of evil? The nunnery is not a place of kindness and generosity, but rather of racism and cruelty. Some things need to change, and Sister Maria is just the girl to get to the heart of the matter. But maybe she should try decaf next time.
Satánico Pandemonium is a difficult film to get your head around. It appears to have a Gordian Knot of a plot, but it’s cut at the end to reveal a very simple story. The trick is working out the theme (or themes). The film is filled with blasphemy, but is it anti-religious? Is it an indictment against repressive authorities or a psychological examination of the pent up desires we all have (that probably should be repressed). It would be a lot easier to nail it down if there was only one answer, but censorship didn’t allow that. In order to get the OK for a general release in Mexico, a very religious country, the filmmakers had to give an out for the Church, a way of interpreting the film that wouldn’t be (overly) offensive to Catholics.
While pundits label the Nunsploitation movement (a group of films focusing on convent life, and including sexual and violent elements) as European, the best convent films tended to be made far away from its roots. There was too much of a tradition of schlock cinema on the continent, where nun flicks could be tossed into an already defined marketing niche. In Mexico, with a shorter film tradition and far fewer directors, there was more of an attempt at meaningful expression and artistry in what was elsewhere considered cult films. This shows up most visibly in the art direction, set design, and cinematography. Alucarda is memorable because of its avant-garde convent design and surreal costumes. Satánico Pandemonium is less bizarre, instead capturing the simple Beauty of the countryside and buildings. It is a movie where the background imagery alone make it worth watching.
We first see Maria in a metaphorical Eden. She is picking vibrant wild flowers in a tame, but natural looking forest. The sun is bright, and the colors are rich. She chats to a contented boy, and holds a lamb. It doesn’t get more idyllic. But a man shows up, first nude, and then in elaborate garments, and offers her an apple. From then on, nothing is quite as beautiful. She runs to her convent where the nuns show little joy in life and abuse the two back acolytes, making them serve the others, eat alone, and sleep in the dank basement. Had the Devil opened her eyes to the cruelty around her? Maria was hardly the type to have ignored just behavior had she noticed it previously.
Maria uses prayer, a thorn belt, and self flagellation in an attempt to cast out the Devil’s influence. Instead, she is seduced by an unknown nun who transforms into Lucifer, and now she literally has the Devil in her. For the rest of the film, she switches between compassionate and guilt-ridden, and carnal and violent.
And we’re back to: what does it all mean? The accusation that organized religions (the Catholic church in particular) are hypocritical, oppressive, racist, and fail to see the wonders of this life, is straight forward. Less clear is what Maria’s state implies. My best reading, is that her desires and cruelty come from her years of repression. Once the Devil uncorks the bottle, what should have been expressed over time explodes out. The ending supports this interpretation. Although the famous nun orgy (yes, I wrote “nun orgy”) makes it all a bit cloudy.
Cecilia Pezet, who is in almost every frame, is an exceptionally attractive woman, whose picture should be placed in the dictionary next to the words “cute” and “adorable.” That she is so wholesomely delicious adds to the excitement when she gets down and dirty. Each time she puts her clothes back on or wipes the blood off of her breasts, she looks virginal again.
While the movie has few flaws, the Devil’s numerous appearances are done so poorly as to detract from the entire picture. He pops onto the screen just like they used to in old episodes of I Dream of Genie or Bewitched, accompanied by cheesy, 1950s B-movie, Sci-fi music. It is embarrassing, and makes it more difficult to persuade the uninitiated that this is a genre worthy of respect.
For those with no knowledge of Nunsploitation, Satánico Pandemonium contains everything the category is known for, that is, everything needed to give a heart attack to that old fundamentalist lady on your block. There is a nun stripping (multiple times), a whipping, self torture, lesbian nuns, heterosexual intercourse, the attempted seduction of an underage boy, a horrendous inquisition torture scene, three blood splattered murders, a hanging, a strangulation, and a flock of naked nuns dancing about (many of whom where played by actual prostitutes).
There’s plenty here to admire, shock, excite and think about. And that’s what film is supposed to do.