Sex and Fury

Directed by: Norifumi Suzuki
In turn-of-the-century (not this century—the last century) Japan, gambler, pickpocket, and swordswoman, Ochô Inoshika, seeks the three individuals who murdered her father twenty years earlier.  She happens to run into a dying gambler who asks her to save his sister from a brothel which, coincidentally, is run by one of the killers.  Also coincidentally, an anarchist that Ochô saved is plotting revenge against a politician, who is another one of the killers.  And did I mention coincidences?  How about that the anarchist’s ex-lover is a British spy who is working with the politicians who are the killers.  Wait, there’s more.  Ochô’s mother is having sex with one of the killers and…  Oh, never mind.  It’s best not to think about it.

Ah, Japan in 1905 was a fascinating and magical land, where latex condoms were all the rage and plastic poker chips were abundant.  It would take the West years to discover plastic, but in the far East, it was just a normal part of life.  But don’t look down upon Western culture, for it was years ahead in terms of women’s panties, as demonstrated by lady spy, Christina in Sex and Fury.  She might have been confused about her own accent (being an English spy, but having an inexplicable Swedish accent), but she was an expert at attaining small, black briefs.  Of course she shouldn’t be blamed for her odd vocal patterns since her very British boss had an American accent and spoke in a strange halting fashion which cried out “The director has no idea what I’m doing so I don’t have to worry that I sound like I’m phonetically sounding out each word.”

Sex and Fury doesn’t make much sense if viewed as a narrative.  However, everything falls into place when you assume that telling a coherent story in a consistent manner was of no importance, but getting viewers to turn off their televisions and head out to a theater, was.  It is filled with anything that couldn’t be seen on broadcast TV.  There’s nudity, consensual sex, rape, lesbianism, bondage, whipping, violence, scatological humor, and lots and lots of blood, sometimes spraying into the air.  It is all haphazardly put together, as if master director Norifumi Suzuki just didn’t care (my guess is that he didn’t; sometimes you just do it for the paycheck).  The story doesn’t hold together and requires an absurd number of coincidences to function to the extent that it does.  Irrelevant subplots pop up and disappear, as do characters.  Both the heroes and the villains take insanely stupid actions with no explanation.  It is all capped by the most inappropriate music I’ve heard in a film: acid rock backing a massive swordfight, harp music to go with a sexual assault, and elevator music over a protracted death scene.

But that doesn’t mean Sex and Fury isn’t fun.  One of three movies that can claim to be direct sources (as opposed to the many indirect sources) for Quinton Tarantino’s Kill Bill (the others being Lady Snowblood and Thriller, A Cruel Picture, also starring Christina Lindberg), it is joyful in its carnage.  On occasion, Suzuki would almost accidentally create the kind of artistry that would suffuse his latter picture, School of the Holy Beast.  One of the films set pieces is an exciting and bizarre swordfight between a completely nude Ochô and a gang of yakuza.  Meticulously staged and beautifully shot, it is worth the price of admission on its own.

The film’s other moment of brilliance is why we’re examining it here.  From an atheist perspective, there’s not much to talk about for most of Sex and Fury‘s running time, but that changes late in the picture when, for no reason, the villain is defended by a group of stiletto-wielding Catholic nuns.  It makes the most sense to consider these women as bodyguards disguised as nuns, but that interpretation is made improbable by the next scene, where, still dressed as nuns, they stand reverently in an underground chapel before a giant painting of the crucifixion.  The blasphemy is kicked up a notch as we’re shown Ochô, topless and chained, whipped by Christina (who is wearing a sexy cow-girl outfit…  I can’t even guess why).  Then, in a shot that could go on any art museum’s wall, we see Ochô, still topless, suspended by a rope and hanging directly in front of Jesus.  This is S&M Christ at his best.

Unfortunately, Suzuki doesn’t solidify his antireligious message here (as he would the following year) so all we get are a few minutes connecting the Church to violence.  It is marvelous imagery that indicates that this movie could have been much more.

Silent Hill

In an attempt to find a cure for her daughter’s sleeping disorders, Rose takes her to the ghost town of Silent Hill (No, really.  That’s what she does and why.  I’m not kidding.)  Once there, the daughter disappears, and Rose is surrounded by some of the most seriously disturbing undead and demonic creatures ever to hit the screen.  Luckily, Rose is joined by an obsessive policewoman with a pistol.  Unluckily, she doesn’t have many bullets.  And speaking of a lack of luck, the only “people” in the town that can carry on a semi-coherent conversation are fundamentalists that hide out in a church and shout about “the evil one” and “witches.”  Rose has to find her daughter, avoid the monsters, and get out of town before the fundies do something that makes the flesh-ripping guy with a pyramid head appear pleasant by comparison.

In the world of Silent Hill, God is absent.  So is the Devil.  But Hell…Hell is doing just fine.  Demons that unleash hordes of giant cockroaches, walking cinder-children, crawling corpses with razor wire across their eyes, and hideous armless forms that spew lava—they’re all here.  Oh yes my children, Hell is open and you’re all welcome.

Silent Hill is a fast-paced ride that takes its job of scaring and shocking its audience very seriously.  It doesn’t make much sense for most of its running time, and once it does, you’ll wish it never tried to explain things; but who cares?  This is seriously creepy stuff.  And it alternates methods of disturbing its audience, so you don’t have a chance to become desensitized.  It starts with surrealistic insanity.  Buildings mutate, monsters appear and disappear, and the air is filled with snow-like ash (it’s quite lovely…in a gothic poetry sense).  Then there are moments of pain and cruelty.  A man is crucified on a wire fence, and turns out to be alive (kind of).  Another is tied in a bathroom stall with the earlier-mentioned razor wire.  Then things get gory.  And once we’ve digested all that, a new kind of horror is put into play: the fundies.  While the minions of Hell would drive any sane man crazy, the fundamentalists, who live in a church and show no concern for a girl’s skin being ripped off because she broke the rules, are far worse.  These are enemies you can despise.

Interesting in a film where the religious are the villains (too rare in movies, yet everything they say in this picture I’ve heard from people I’ve met…except for the screams of “she’s a witch”) that faith has power.  The fundamentalists are safe, barricaded in their church and praying.  They aren’t safe because they have the power of God on their side, but simply because faith, in and of itself, is a powerful thing.  But it isn’t a good thing.  Faith in Silent Hill, much like in our world, is the ultimate evil.  Alice Krige (the Borg Queen in Star Trek: First Contact), who combines beauty (watch the otherwise unwatchable Ghost Story) with full blown psychosis, is perfect as the self-appointed priestess of the fanatics.  You’ll loath her within thirty seconds of first seeing her.  This is a film that will have you siding with Hell (I can’t say “over Heaven” since there is no mention of such a place).

I would have liked more background on the church-goers.  A lot more.  They seem out of time.  Why did this group have power in the 1970s?  It’s an important question if you want to take the movie seriously.  Do you need to take it seriously to enjoy it?  No.  The cinematography, effects, frights, gore, and action guarantee a good time.  But some clarification wouldn’t have hurt.

It also would have been nice to eliminate Sean Bean, who does his best with an unnecessary role.  As Rose’s husband, he walks around with an incongruously oblique policeman and hammers you over the head with story points that were pretty obvious already.

For horror fans, this will be a very satisfying film.  I can’t say what gamers will think as I’ve never picked up the Silent Hill video game.  Perhaps everything will make sense to them, but you don’t have to have a joystick to be entertained.

Sodom and Gomorrah

Lot, the gray-haired action hero, is leader of the dullest people on the face of the Earth.  Their goal is to work hard, and enjoy themselves as little as possible while condemning everyone they meet.  Not exactly good party guests, particularly when the party is taking place in Sodom (I could have sworn the title mentioned Gomorrah, but that city is missing from the picture).  Lot and his male model sidekick, Ishmael, lead their drab people to squat near Sodom and build a damn (yes, they build a damn, but still live in tents secured by rope).  But there is evil afoot in Sodom, and it’s not just the sodomy.  The brother of the queen has made a deal with some nomads, planning to use them to get the throne.  Since the Hebrews are between the nomads and the city, it’s only a matter of time before Lot will have to use his action-shepherd’s-crook to put the beat-down on some Arabs.  And he’s just the horribly miscast guy to do it.  Of course, by turning to face these new opponents, he’s left his rear exposed to the Sodomites.  Now what could they do with that?

Gather round children.  It’s time for a Bible tale.  This is a story from the Old Testament (that’s pre-Jesus little ones, so there’s no semi-nude men playing S&M games…  Wait a minute, this is Sodom and Gomorrah, so there are plenty of semi-nude men playing S&M games).  Anyway, we’re here to hear about a man named Lot, the type of man that Christian parents want their children to emulate.  He’s a hero after all.  What did Lot do?  Well, according to the Bible, he tossed his two virgin daughters to the mob outside his door figuring that they’d rape the girls.  And why did Lot do this?  Because Lot is a dick.  Later, much later, his daughters turn the tables on him, getting him drunk and raping him.  You see, they think they may be the last people on Earth, so daddy is pretty much it if you are looking for a stiff rod.  Gosh, I love the Bible.  It has such swell stories for kids.  There’s one more important item to Lot’s story.  God tells Lot to get out of Sodom (this is before sending his daughters to be defiled but before incestpalooza) so he skedaddles with the wife and kids.  However, his wife takes a gander back, and for this crime (that is, looking backwards), the Big G turns her into a pillar of salt.  Now why would he do that?  Because God is a dick.  Hey, Lot had to learn it from someone.

So, Sodom and Gomorrah is the story of rape, incest, and salt.  Well, no, except for the salt.  Apparently, real Bible stories are too much for the delicate sensibilities of Christians, so this is a made-up Bible story.  It’s an action-adventure yarn, with Stewart Granger thinking he’s still in King Solomon’s Mines (that would be a movie where Granger was good, unlike this one).  The non-Biblically inspired action includes some Hebrews freeing the slaves, and a huge battle in the sand, that would be the high point of the film if it wasn’t for a horrible special effect.  There’s also a non-Biblical romance between Lot and an ex-Sodomite (she’s found a new position), and some off-screen sexual trysts with both of Lot’s daughters and the Sodomite prince (who is probably still using the old position).  For all the pounding of Jehovah in the viewers’ faces, the Judio-Christian connection could be removed in five minutes: make the Jews into Greeks that worship Zeus, and change a few names.  Don’t watch to get that religious feeling; Christianity is only important for its fantasy elements.

But that doesn’t mean Sodom and Gomorrah doesn’t have a religious theme.  It plainly states its very Biblical message: being a good, kind, and loving person means nothing; only obedience counts.  Ildith, a non-Christian, is the only character who isn’t a dick (this film is all about dicks, one way or another), and she marries Lot, so you know Jehovah is going to pull his salt routine on her.  Gosh, makes you feel all warm and cuddly about this God guy.

Ah, but there is much of value in this Italian production made on a budget of…well, clearly not enough.  Besides the joyful and sexy performances of Stanley Baker (Zulu) and Rossana Podestà, the film presents some interesting questions for us to ponder:

  • Why do the all Hebrews wear long robes except for Ishmael, who wears a little cutesy-outfit that shows off his legs?  Should Ishmael be in the city, if you get my drift?
  • Would a little Just-for-Men make Lot look less like someone painted the side of his head?
  • Why are all the slaves white through 80% of the movie, and then suddenly black?
  • Is “Do I remind you of your father?” the best thing to ask a girl before kissing her?
  • Why is it more moral to live on a farm than in a city?
  • Is it smart filmmaking to make the “good” guys really dull while the bad guys are the people you want to hang with?
  • Why does God do so much interfering at the last minute, but nothing when he would have been useful?
  • Are lesbians always crushed beneath giant phallic symbols?
  • Why is a shepherd’s crook a better weapon than a sword?
  • How are things in Gomorrah?
  • Just how stupid is this Lot guy?
  • Wouldn’t almost any greeting be preferable to “Welcome Sodomites”?

And of course, the biggest question:

  • How huge of a dick is God?

The Ten Commandments

Moses, an all-American boy, grows up to be prince of Egypt and fight for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  That is, until he finds out he’s a Hebrew, which makes him give up everything, including easy ways of freeing his new found people, and throw himself in the mud.  Talk about self hatred.  After a peaceful walk in the desert, he starts talking to hot bushes (and not the fun types), that tell him to stand in dramatic poses and say things very loudly.  After winning a posing competition with the King of Siam,  he takes off with every Jew he can find, all of whom yell, “Stone him,” whenever things look dicey.  (Come on folks.  Get some backbone!)  But with his faith in God, Moses defeats the communists and is given the Constitution of the United States…I mean defeats the Egyptians and is given the Ten Commandments.  Same thing.

Frequent readers of this site will have noted a correlation between low ratings and low ratings.  No shock there.  With such quality religious flicks out there as King of Kings and Left Behind 2: Tribulation Force, it often seems a waste to give these films two grades.  So, I thought it was time I add one that oozes righteousness and still gets a thumbs up from me.  Thus: The Ten Commandments, the ultimate in cinematic spectacle.  Filmed with the color and contrast turned to eleven, gigantic sets, sweeping North African vistas, stirring music, and a cast of thousands, including substantial portions of the Egyptian military, they never made them like this, and never will again.  This is film as pageantry.

It’s hard to forget the parting of the Red Sea, or the fire-carving of the Commandments, but equally thrilling are the scenes of the great treasure city, with its gigantic obelisks, huge marble slabs, and numerous statues.  CGI hasn’t managed anything half as impressive.  God as a mildly glowing fern is a let-down, but the rivers turning to blood and the deathly fog that kills the first borns more than makes up for it.

There were plenty of other religious epics produced in the ’50s.  None so grand, but The Ten Commandments is more than the biggest parade.  It is the perfect vehicle for its larger than life stars.  Charlton Heston couldn’t handle subtle emotions or even everyday actions; he’s never believable displaying amusement, affection, or love.  But as a force of nature, a representation of authority, he’s magnificent.  The Ten Commandments never asks him to do anything small.  He rages and he proclaims, and at those, no one is better.   However, Yul Brynner is close.  When both appear in the same frame, I expect the extras to drown in a flood of testosterone.

Even with the impressive imagery turned off, this is still one entertaining movie.  I could be content just listening to the voices.  Besides Heston and Brynner, there are the distinctive Edward G. Robinson, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Judith Anderson, Vincent Price, and John Carradine.  Where else can you find the remarkable tones of Robinson entwining with those of Price?

The behavior of the film’s characters  makes little sense (particularly that God guy, who apparently is all-powerful, but waits for generations before stopping the torture of “his people”), but for a change, that’s not a problem.   The Ten Commandments isn’t a slice-of-life pic, where real people deal with real situations.  It’s a hero-story told round the campfire (but in sparkling VistaVision), where the individuals are close kin to Agamemnon, Achilles, and Zeus.

DeMille could never decide if he was telling a tale of the glory of God or of the wonders of the United States.  I suspect the two were inseparable in his mind.  Moses may be the messenger of the voice from the fiery foliage, but he speaks of tyranny and repression as the reasons why the Hebrews must be freed, not simply because God said so.  In the weakest moments of the picture, DeMille, in an unneeded occasional narration and an embarrassing prolog, tries his best to connect the Biblical story to the fight against Soviet communism.  It’s an uncomfortable fit.  Yes, the Israelites are free from the Egyptians, but now they are under the thumb of a vengeful god, who will smite anyone who doesn’t worship as proscribed.  Not exactly freedom in my book.  But with the cold war behind us, the political propaganda merges with the religious propaganda to make both distant and irrelevant.  DeMille may have wanted to push faith and country, but instead, he ended up with a rip-roaring story and little coherent theme, which is how I like my religious pics.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t much to learn about religion from this film.  A few of the better bits:

  • God is an ass who just likes to fuck with people’s minds.  He keeps Moses on the mountain for 40 days just because its funny.
  • God is a vindictive prick.  If you don’t worship him, he makes you walk in the desert till you die.
  • God is indiscriminately cruel.  He kills the guilty.  He kills the innocent.  It’s all the same to him.  He just chooses a group (first borns) and their number is up.
  • The power of God is a stupid power.  The only way for the Angel of Death (code name: Destroyer) to know who NOT to kill is if he sees lambs blood on the door.  What kind of a system is that?  If he can figure out who is a first born, why can’t he work out who is a Hebrew?
  • God hates song and revelry (or at least Moses does).  Not sure why.  I guess God is a grumpy god.  So, no big parties for God.  Also, eating and drinking are frowned upon.
  • Moses was pretty much the same as Jesus, with a star heralding his birth and all the new born Jews killed to stop him.  Even the Bible didn’t know about that.  And the ladies loved that bare chest of his.
  • Once you’ve met God, you pretty much suck as a person, although you can be intimidating as a leader.

Sure, the whole thing is silly, but then so is The Iliad, Beowulf, and Sir Gawain and The Green Knight.  It is gloriously, magnificently silly.  It is the cinematic epic against which all others are judged.  And while it has flaws, I can never forget hearing Rameses proclaim “So let it be written, so let it be done,” and seeing Moses stretch out his staff over the Red Sea and part the waters.  Now that’s good fantasy.

This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse

Coffin Joe (also known as Zé do Caixão), survived God’s wrath, or Voodoo undead, or his hallucinations from the end of the first film, even though it really looked like he was dead.  Cleared of all murder charges for no particular reason, he sets up in a new town to once again find the perfect woman to bear him a son.  Aiding Joe is a guy in the worst hunchback makeup I’ve ever seen.  Since no explanation is given for who he is or why he’s helping Joe, I have to wonder if he was supposed to be a horribly deformed hunchback, or a psycho who really wanted to get into community theater.  Between speeches about the folly of religion and how man can find immortality through blood (the second kinda takes the wind out of the first, doesn’t it?), Joe kidnaps a bunch of hot chicks, puts them in transparent nighties, and frightens them with spiders (because that’s certainly the best way to find a superior woman).  Disappointed by the results of his test, and after a few killings, he sets his sights on Laura, the daughter of the richest and most powerful man in town (Hmmm, I wonder if he’ll object).  Laura, being nuttier than Joe, is keen on this breeding program, and the two set out to have a baby and talk about the superiority of man over God.

Coffin Joe is back, with better production values and even more talking.  Yes, this man doesn’t believe in God, does believe in the superiority of man, and really, really wants you to know about it.  Five minutes don’t pass without him making a speech.  And I thought politicians liked to hear themselves talk.

The improvement in cinematic technique over that used in Joe’s first outing, At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, (the sound wasn’t recorded with a mic sunk in sludge at the bottom of a tin can this time)  makes this a more watchable flick.  The semi-professional sets and scantily clad women don’t hurt either.  And the story is more complex, though that’s a mixed blessing since it also means the plot holes are larger and more frequent.  For the first hour, I was sure there was an excellent movie hidden somewhere within this one, but eventually the endless chattering got to be too much.

Even if writer/director José Mojica Marins’s displays greater skill, much of the production is too crude to take seriously (and the flick is too talky to find humorous).  A scene of several girls being attacked by snakes reminds me of Bela Lagosi finding off the non-functional octopus prop in Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster.  The actresses are obviously lifting the snakes into position.  The major set piece is Joe’s dream journey to hell, the only part of the film in color.  I can only guess that this was supposed to be shocking, with a red-painted man whipping and poking (with a very fake pitchfork) semi-nude men and women, but it’s too poorly done to elicit that reaction.  You might giggle.

Much like the first film, most of This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse is Joe preaching his doctrine of immortality through blood and the foolishness of religion.  Again, the lone atheist (everyone else is Catholic, as would have been expected in 1967 Brazil) is a psychotic killer.  Also, like the first, priests spoke out against the film for its blasphemy of having a non-religious character.  I’d have thought they’d be thrilled with the depiction of a non-believer as someone incapable of good actions.  Instead they were unhappy that anyone would suggest that a person could be an atheist.

At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul ended with possible divine intervention.  This time around, it is more blatant, with the story being wrapped up by God stepping in.  We are then treated to text informing us that, “Man will only find truth when he searches for truth” while a cross glows brighter and brighter.  If I might make a suggestion: Don’t search for truth in a Coffin Joe movie.

The Meaning of Life!

Monty Python’s Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin team up with a few fish to explain the meaning of life. Then they show a long episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

The Meaning of Life contains the second best song in film history. The best is “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” from Life of Brian (also a Monty Python film), but running a close second is this film’s “Every Sperm is Sacred.” There are few more iconic moments in cinema than that of the horde of Dickensian children explaining Catholicism’s prohibition on birth control in song and dance. This is then followed by an equally brilliant skewering of Protestantism and a hymn that reveals the true motivation behind monotheism (if you grovel enough, maybe that bastard God won’t smite you). Add in the brilliant short feature The Crimson Permanent Assurance and an amusing look at sex education classes and you’ve got the beginnings of a great film that handily breaks the four barrier on the atheism scale.

And then… well… the film continues.

When it comes down to it, The Meaning of Life is not a film. It’s a bunch of independent shorts and sketches that they threw together and slapped title cards between to give the illusion of cohesion. While this structure is an amusing metaphor for religion, it causes difficulties when trying to view the film as a unified whole. Without characters or meaningful plot threads to lead me through the film, there is nothing to make me care how it ends. All I’m there for is to see whether they have anything to top “Every Sperm is Sacred.”

They don’t.

Yet, even having shot their wad in the first few reels, this is still Monty Python. What they turn out in their post-orgasmic grogginess is still worth watching. So, while it’s the weakest of their three films (the one I’ve yet to mention being Monty Python and the Holy Grail), it still garners a 3.5 on the quality scale, and if you’re watching it on DVD, where you can easily skip to the best parts, it might even be worth a 4. Still, if you’re only going to see one Monty Python film, see Life of Brian instead.

The Man Who Wasn’t There

Albert Camus meets Dashell Hammett in the Coen Brothers’ tale of a barber, Ed Crane, who thinks his life might be better were he to dream of being in the exciting world of dry cleaning, or at least dream of being the silent partner of someone else in the exciting world of dry cleaning.  Yes, that’s right, this is an existentialist film noir about a barber putting venture capital into a dry cleaning operation.  But, wait, it’s not just any existentialist film noir about a barber turned venture capitalist. No, it’s an existentialist film noir about a barber turned venture capitalist that was specially crafted by the genius of Joel and Ethan Coen to be as dull and lifeless as possible.  Gee, now doesn’t that sound fun.

Do you force yourself to reread The Stranger only once a year for fear the binding of your dog-eared, highlighted copy will give out from overuse?  Do you repaint random rooms of your home on a weekly basis because you enjoy observing the drying process?  Do you find men that speak in a monotone sexy?  Do you wonder what happened to Sam Spade’s barber?  If you answered yes to all these questions, then… wow… I guess the Coen brothers 2001 salute to the monotone voice—The Man Who Wasn’t There—is the film for you.  Please return to your paint observations as I back slowly away.

It’s not as though The Man Who Wasn’t There is a poorly made film.  The black and white cinematography is stunningly beautiful.  The score is superb.  The plot is nicely complex and relatively free of holes.  The acting, while stilted and stylized, succeeds in portraying exactly what the Coen brothers wanted to portray.  And it’s not as though nothing happens in the film.  It’s got adultery, blackmail, embezzlement, and a couple of murders.  It’s just that all of that occurs very slowly underneath two hours of the monotone narration of a passionless barber.  After 90 minutes of this, the concept of gnawing my right leg off began to sound like not such a bad idea just so I could feel something, anything again.  At two hours, there were teeth marks in my thigh.

So, how does it fare as an atheist film?  Well, certainly, a caring god would never have engineered a universe where I would have had to sit through this film once, much less twice.  Though, I suppose that’s not really the analysis we are going for here at The Film Atheist.

The Man Who Wasn’t There, despite its failings as an enjoyable film, doesn’t do too badly on the atheist scale.  Yes, someone does a bad thing, leading to many bad things happening to them, which is usually a hallmark of the “obey god or else” school of cinematic propaganda.  However, there is no sense of universal justice behind this, and there is no counter example of someone who has good things happen to them because they live life “properly.”  That leaves the film with the depressing but difficult to argue against message that life just sucks.  While this doesn’t exactly make it an atheistic film (the existence of one or more gods managing the universe does not preclude life from sucking), this does make the film’s message antithetical to the traditional omniscient, omnipotent, and omni-benevolent god concept currently the fashion in archconservative theistic circles.

So, The Man Who Wasn’t There gets an extra half point on the Atheism scale due to blasphemy. This, however, fails to make up for the boredom this film inflicts upon the audience.  If you’re ever given the opportunity to watch this film, I can only say give it a pass in favor of doing something actually fun by comparison for those two hours, say watching grass grow.

Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun

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.

The Magdalene Sisters

This is a fictionalized account of the horrors that actually took place at the “Magdalene laundries” in Ireland.  Margaret is raped by her cousin at a family wedding.  Bernadette mildly flirts with boys.  Rose is an unwed mother.  For so “dishonoring” their families, they are sent to be indefinitely confined, working as slaves for Catholic nuns.  The girls are beaten, mentally abused, sexually molested, and stripped of dignity and rights.  An ancient story of the crimes of the Medieval church?  Nope.  This is the 1960s.

Many of the films I review on this site—that either were intended by the filmmakers to promote a religious point of view or show the actions of religious figures—can be fun to watch.  You can have a good party playing Left Behind movies, laughing at the behaviors and beliefs on display.  But there’s nothing to laugh at with The Magdalene Sisters.  There is no fun to be had.  This is the ugly truth of organized religion.  It’s painful to watch.  It’s also important.  The Catholic Magdalene laundries continued until 1996.  This isn’t history; it’s current events.  I can’t think of a film that’s made me angrier.

Peter Mullan wrote the screenplay based on the accounts of survivors.  Dates and names have been changed, and lesser characters are composites, but the general events happened.  He didn’t even use the worst cases, thinking those would be too extreme for the film.

It starts at a wedding, with smiling faces and traditional Irish music performed by the local priest.  Margaret is speaking with her cousin when he grabs for her.  She pushes him away, and he locks the door and rapes her.  After, we hear only the music as Margaret tells a friend what happened.  She tells parents who speak to the cousin and the priest.  They blame her.  It’s best to prepare yourself for an uncomfortable ride, since this is as cheerful as it gets.

Margaret, Bernadette, and Rose (who is forced to change her name to Patricia because they already have a Rose) meet Sister Bridget together and are terrified, as they should be.  The sister is the worst kind of sadist, a believer.  She is sure of the girl’s inferiority and their sin.  Bernadette pleads that she’s never been with a boy, but Sister Bridget only responds, “But you wanted to be.”  In this place, all men are assumed to be base creatures who cannot avoid temptation and women (except nuns who have removed themselves from the world) are nothing but those temptations.  With this philosophy, it isn’t surprising that the nuns have little concern with the physical and mental pain of their charges.

The girls work long hours in a laundry, eat a dull and insufficient diet, and are not allowed to speak accept when given permission (such as when reading The Bible at meals). They are beaten often for the slightest offense, and have their heads shaved (including eyebrows and lashes) for trying to escape.  While far from the most extreme indignity the girls undergo, one of the nuns’ games sums up their existence.  Stripped naked for exercise, the girls are lined up so that two sisters can compare them and laugh.  They pick out who has the largest breasts and butt.  And pull two girls out of line to better choose which is hairiest.

But the nuns aren’t the only villains here.  Absolute power, the belief that God is behind them and that sin is everywhere, has made them into monsters, but they couldn’t do this on their own.  Equally to blame are parents and teachers, who have bought the religious party line, and are eager to toss their daughters and students into hell for their real or imagined transgressions.  When one girl escapes, her father brings her back, whipping her, and then yelling that all the girls are whores.  Their are no helpful policemen, questioning social workers, or crusading politicians.  Everyone plays along.  There’s no one willing, or interested in changing the punishment for these penitent, fallen girls.

I’d love to say that it all ends with troops moving in, the priests and nuns led away in chains, and the buildings demolished, but this is reality and that didn’t happen.  It isn’t as dark as it could be (the stories do come from survivors after all), but you won’t find any emotional satisfaction here.

The film looks goods, and the acting is superb, but I’m not completely comfortable with the movie telling a fictionalized account instead of stating exactly what happened.  The story has a set beginning, middle, and pat ending, but the reality is more complex, and doesn’t fit into the narrative structure.  But we have narratives dealing with The Holocaust, so my complaint is a minor one.  Besides, the region 1 DVD comes with Steve Humphries’s documentary Sex in a Cold Climate, which allows four women to speak for themselves about the horrors they endured.

The Catholic Church and religious supporters have attacked the film, not on its facts (since there are still survivors who can testify to the events, and even the Sisters of Mercy have apologized in a vague way, for the crimes of their order), but rather because it doesn’t depict some good clergy members or point out the nice attributes of the vicious nuns.  That’s a frightening position to take: that the torture that these people inflicted is no more important than their hobbies or some charity work they might have performed.  I’m sure many of the criminals of history had a few good qualities.  Caligula may have been very kind to an orphan or two.  That hardly negates his crimes.  The most important thing to know about the Magdalene nuns was the terrors they are responsible for.  Moreover, this isn’t their story.  This is the story of the victims.  When those girls were being whipped, it is unlikely that they were dwelling on the good deeds of their jailers.  This criticism is disrespectful to the women who suffered.  Unfortunately, it isn’t surprising.

The Magdalene Sisters documents a dark chapter from the Catholic Church’s past. How many times has it been necessary to utter that phrase?  How many times does it have to be said before people stop supporting that institution, and others like it?

Left Behind 2: Tribulation Force

Shortly after the rapture—that time when all the good actors ascended to heaven, leaving only C-level hacks like Kirk Cameron—a group of people, nay, a force of people…nay, let us think of them as a tribulation force, go hog wild on the sin of pride, deciding to take (Preaching break: God is great.  He is so great.  I cannot tell you just how great God is) on the AnticChrist.  Our religious hero-sinners consist of a kid pretending to be a hardboiled journalist, a grumpy pilot, a minister who is incapable of speaking (Preaching Break: Oh Jesus, we give our lives to you, no matter how stupid your plans are, because you’re Jesus) without mentioning God, and a girl who doesn’t do anything because she’s female, and females don’t count.  After extended proselytizing, a plot appears out of nowhere.  It seems that (Preaching Break: Come to Jesus, or it is no biscuit for you!) the euro-trash Antichrist is going to be declared the messiah by some Jewish guy, and the Tribulation Force needs to stop that, because everyone accepts whatever Jews say…

Based on the childishly simplistic Left Behind novels, Tribulation Force picks up the threads of the first film.  Your favorite actors who-can’t-find-real-work are back, playing the parts they didn’t fit before.  (That could be an overstatement, but with Kirk “Gosh I’m Cute” Cameron portraying a tough, world-weary reporter, all perspective is out the window.)  The story is simple enough, mainly because there isn’t one for the first hour.  Instead we get prayer, preaching, and the occasional conversion (Halleluiah brethren!).  You will never find a movie with more sermonizing.  I’ve gone to church services (yes, I’ve entered a church and neither I nor it burst into flame) that were subtler.  If this is your idea of entertainment, go to a revival meeting; you’ll find it more active and believable.  Once the plot begins, you’ll be amazed at how slight it is.  In the grand scheme of things, a Jewish scholar’s statement on the identity of the messiah is pretty small potatoes.  Wouldn’t it have been more interesting if our heroes had done something that…mattered?  But nope, the only action is this flick is trying to stop a Rabbi from speaking.

OK, so what’s the world of Left Behind 2 like?  Well, it’s fundamentalist paranoia in color.  The U.N. and world banks are the tools of a foreign Antichrist.  Catholics are part of the evil as well, but that’s played down in the film (Left Behind 2: Tribulation Force—The Movie, now with 50% less Catholic-hating than the book).  Everyone is either a Christian, atheist, or Jew.  Hey, maybe all the Muslims and Buddhists got taken to heaven during the rapture; wouldn’t that be a kick?  The Jews tend to sit around in outdoor cafes and dwell on how sorry they are for killing Christ.  Naturally, the atheists are either surly, suicidal, or joining up with the Antichrist.  Society is in complete collapse.  Strangely, everything looks fine except for some car vandalism.  All governments have fallen and currencies are valueless.  Again, this doesn’t effect people’s everyday lives (wow, anarchy works!), but it does allow the U.N. (because that’s the one organization that would survive!?!) to take over.  There are no children (they got raptured), but that no longer bothers anyone except Rayford Steele (yes, that’s the name the writers chose…while sober) and his buddy.  Apparently, most mothers weren’t all that attached to their kids.

Now, everyone remember the Book of Revelations?  Do you remember how wackos interpret it?  If so, you’ll recall that God is letting The Devil (and his kid) take over, because, well, God is a dick.  Yes, God just likes to screw with people because he can.  Luckily (and this may not be clear in your version of The Bible), the Antichrist is an idiot.  He has supernatural powers, plus rules the world, yet he doesn’t bother checking up on the people that are close to him.  This nimrod decides he wants Buck to be his personal reporter, but doesn’t have security do a profile.  If he had, he might have decided not to hire a guy who goes to public church services where they announce who the Antichrist is and that he must be stopped.  First thing the Antichrist needs to do is hire a few ex-FBI agents to do background checks since his pilot also hangs out at the same church services.  (Our heroes are so clever they realize they don’t have to hide any of their behaviors the way that normal revolutionaries do).

Back to the wackos.  In the 1980s, every evangelical with a TV show shouted with absolute certainty that the end-of-days was upon us, and that The Bible clearly states how the tension between the Soviet Union and the United States would start Armageddon.  Jimmy Carter was also in The New Testament, along with multiple political events that are no longer relevant to anything.  As the world didn’t end (or did it?  No, I guess it didn’t), the whole mapping of Revelations onto the current world comes off as pretty silly to anyone who thinks.  But hey, when has thinking and The Bible ever gone together?  Tossing aside thought, the filmmakers have a bigger problem: there just isn’t anything all that interesting in the world today to connect up to ancient prophecy.  Minor terrorist activity looks pretty feeble next to immanent nuclear annihilation.  So, we’re given a really boring vision of the final days.  They should have gone with the literal dragon.

It’s not all a loss.  This is the only film I know that has fire breathing old dudes.  You see, God (remember, the dick), sends two guys out of a Cecil B. DeMille picture to Earth to mumble the truth to the two or three people that can chat to them.  God could have just used the radio, TV, or maybe a podcast (  What do you think?), but he finds it funnier to not let people know what’s going on, so he sends these guys with long beards and flame throwers in their tonsils.  Does it make sense?  Of course not.  But damn, it’s cool.

Left Behind 2: Tribulation Force was supposed to get a theatrical release, but didn’t because, well, why would it?  It was also promoted as a great tool for converting the heathens (like me).  Wow, it astonishes me what thin grasps people have on reality.  No one who isn’t already Jamming with Jesus is going to be able to sit through this talentless catechism and come out with a positive view of Christianity.