94 minutes

The true test of a trashy exploitation movie lies in whether its title makes any sense compared to the plot. If it doesn't, you're good to go – and this mid-seventies effort from Spanish schlockmeister Jesús Franco, shot in handsome Portuguese locations for a German producer, is so gloriously unrelated to its title and source material that it beggars belief how anyone could take this for what it so obviously isn't.

     Though the title is drawn from the allegedly real-life correspondence between a 17th-century Portuguese nun and the French officer who promised to rescue her from her seclusion, mr. Franco and his German producer Erwin Dietrich, scripting under the alias “Manfred Gregor”, go for an all-out orgy of softcore depravity and mild Satanism in their reworking of the plot. Mariana Alcoforado becomes Maria Rosália (Susan Hemingway), an innocent peasant girl whose virginal beauty is coveted by the lecherous Father Vicente (William Berger), who succeeds in locking her up in the isolated convent where he is a confessor – a mere facade for a coven of satanic nuns devoted to the pleasures of the flesh.

     No prizes for guessing that mr. Franco and his crew go for soft-core titillation: naked female bodies with sweat and blood running over them writhing in unholy lesbian embraces, inverted crucifixes and thorny punishments. The script, a mechanical variation on the classic “let's make Susan believe she's mad” conspiracy, serves merely as a line on which to hang the various lustful setpieces, with a resolution so rushed and ill-thought that it seems to have been written in a hurry just to give the film the requisite happy ending.

     Still, Love Letters from a Portuguese Nun looks positively and surprisingly handsome, with crisp colour photography from DP Peter Baumgartner making the most from the stately locations and a couple of stylish stylistic flourishes that confirm mr. Franco as a better filmmaker than most people tend to give him credit for. Mention should also go to the unexpectedly solid performances from the cast, ably led by ms. Hemingway, whose innocence perfectly matches her character's, and especially Ana Zanatti as the villainous, satanic Mother Superior.

Starring Susan Hemingway, William Berger; Herbert Fux, Aida Vargas, Ana Zanatti, Vítor Mendes, Hermann Krippahl, Isa Schneider, José Viana, Patrícia da Silva.
     Directed by Jess Franco; written by Manfred Gregor, Christine Lembach; music by Walter Baumgartner; director of photography (colour), Peter Baumgartner; film editor, Marie-Louise Buschke.
     An Avis/Ascot release of a Cinemec Zweite Filmproduktions/Ascot Film production. (World sales, Elite Film.)
     Screened: MOTELx DVD screener, Lisbon, September 4th 2011. 


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