Considering how prevalent images of demonically possessed and sexually “perverse” nuns are on screen — from 1947’s “Black Narcissus” to this month’s “Agnes” — you might wonder how convents haven’t all been struck by lightning by now.
In September, members of the Catholic Church even protested outside the New York Film Festival premiere of writer-director Paul Verhoeven’s “Benedetta,” calling it a “blasphemous lesbian nun movie.” But that discomfort and focus on the real-life 17th-century nun’s sexuality, and not the fuller, more complicated portrait of her in the movie, could be part of the reason why nunsploitation persists.
This subgenre of exploitation films that often distort or manipulate the image of nuns have only increased in popularity over the last few decades. And it’s not only due to their sexual themes.
Sure, Verhoeven ratchets up the scenes in which Benedetta (Virginie Efira) and fellow mystic Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) have sex and the former fornicates with a small wooden statue of the Virgin Mary. And the first act in writer-director Mickey Reece’s disjointed new horror “Agnes,” in which the eponymous bedeviled young nun (Hayley McFarland) nearly bites off a priest’s nose, is far more memorable than the latter act, which explores an entirely different character’s spiritual ambiguity.
But in truth, there’s a lot more going on in these narratives than even their lewder trailers, and reviews describing them as “saucy” and “horny,” convey. As heightened as these films can be, they are meant to be an affront to what is considered by some to be a patriarchal system that suppresses female indignation, sexuality and other aspects of their agency.
“Benedetta” highlights a real-life exception to nuns’ chaste and honorable image by revisiting the story of a woman who stepped way out of line, and was harshly sentenced for it. Meanwhile, the flawed “Agnes” doesn’t really seem to know what story it wants to tell, though it keeps pointing to Agnes’ grotesque rage that could be a stand-in for a deeper frustration.
Film critic and culture reporter Alissa Wilkinson at Vox recently wrote: “[Nun stories] usually draw on the same dramatic tension: the inherent potential, whether or not it’s exercised, for women in organized religious orders to pose a threat to male-dominated religious hierarchy.”
In other words, their intention is to undermine expectations of how a nun should behave and respond to presumed injustices in the church, an antithesis to the more accepted image of women who are perfectly content living a cloistered life with like-minded individuals. “A convent could look like a women’s utopia, but one that relied on men to survive,” Wilkinson adds.
There is certainly truth in that. As Holly Wilson, a professor of philosophy at Louisiana State University at Alexandria, explains, the church affirmed her as a teacher, but she cannot become a priest due to gender restrictions. Still, Wilson, who is Catholic, tells HuffPost that nunsploitation films are reductive and prove how little storytellers, most of whom are male, understand or even care to investigate convent life.
That’s especially true when it comes to a nun’s vow of chastity.
“I really do believe that it’s an unclarity about what it means to sublimate your sexuality in a wholesome way,” Wilson says. She also points to the “sexual revolution” as a phenomenon that exacerbated these images. “[Filmmakers] probably never caught on to the idea that this is an opportunity to draw close to God and to sublimate your natural desires for a higher purpose.”
Wilson asserts that many nuns enter the convent willingly with little to no resentment toward what this life means, despite what so many of these stories seem to imply. “These movies are emphasizing that nuns are not able to [remain chaste] because they’re breaking out,” she continues. “And it being demon-possessed and hysterical and having a lot of visions, and so on. To me, all that is a stereotype of women as overly emotional.”
That’s fair. “Agnes,” for example, doesn’t bother to explore what leads to the nun’s hysteria, merely mentioning that a certain male priest has engaged in sexual misconduct, the type of act that could have rattled her faith and made her vulnerable to evil. But this is purely a theory based on a peripheral storyline in the film. When it comes to its spiritually tortured nun, “Agnes” reduces her to a monster to be feared and never understood by the audience.
Wilson offers another explanation for why some nuns, especially young ones newer to convents like Agnes, might lose their way and exhibit malevolent qualities that have nothing to do with the church’s fear of or objection to women who challenge their values.
“Demonic activity can also be a psychological thing that has to do with repression, but of anger and frustration,” she says. “If you’re just learning what obedience and chastity and poverty [are] about, there can be anger and frustration because your natural desires are frustrated.”
While it’s plainly understood by members of the church, it’s easy to see how filmmakers interpret repression, which by definition implies force, as something that needs to be confronted in their work, however clunkily at times. But for Wilson, these films also project an idea that a nun’s vows are impossible to uphold.
“The nunsploitation films are saying, ‘Women cannot rise up to that level. They cannot live by principles. They can’t live by evangelical counsels. They’re going to always fail.’”
Well, there are cases where they are wildly and willfully unsuccessful — like Benedetta Carlini’s story in Verhoeven’s film. 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 ranking to abbess until she is found out and severely punished.
Though “Benedetta” suggests that her affair with Bartolomea was the catalyst that finally turned the church against her, Wilson rejects the notion that her being a lesbian had anything to do with her condemnation. “I think we think of sexuality in terms of violation and affirmation and as part of our identity more than they would have thought of it then,” she says.
Or maybe the fact that Benedetta claimed that she was possessed by a male angel made her superiors look beyond it? Wilson considers this, but adds: “I think that there was ... perhaps less awareness of female homoeroticism or more tolerance of it or something than there was of male homoerotic experience, because that was more prevalent and more visible.”
As salacious as these films can be, movies like “Benedetta” and “Agnes” underscore that nunsploitation stories can be eternally pondered, even debated, as people of all faiths continue to engage with the practices of the Catholic Church. Can they bring up uncomfortable truths? Absolutely. But for Wilson and other devotees, they shouldn’t be considered the sole representation of a denomination that remains as complex as ever.
“Is there a role to criticize the church?” she asks. “Yes, but the church is not monolithic. Because there’s good things about it that it embraces and allows for the rising above one’s own self-centeredness into something larger and greater, more noble, and sublime.”
And yet, there’s another side that should be spoken of in the same breath: “At the same time, it’s made up of human beings who are fallible.”