As cinematographer Luciano Tovoli (Suspiria) recalls in the DVD’s interview, Behind Convent Walls was typical of the blended humour, erotica, and absurdity integral to Walerian Borowczyk’s canon, but as his personal brand of witty, sexually frank films were being pushed off screens by horror-themed erotica, Borowczyk kind of had nowhere to go, and after a few more theatrical efforts such as the anthology Immoral Women / Les Héroïnes du mal (1979), he disappeared from filmmaking, and seemed to fade into the ether as ‘the guy who made The Beast,’ his best-known and most over-the-top work.
Borowczyk had two big flaws that made his films both memorable and the unfortunate targets of moral tightwads: he had no problem indulging in rude, softcore imagery (which still makes access to uncut versions for retrospectives tough), and his films weren’t necessarily built around all-erotic plots, making it hard to sell them as straight erotica where women just disrobed, boffed, and self-pleasured in central sequences, and kept men in dirty theatres content.
Behind is essentially about bawdy nuns finding ways to sneak around the strict moral and behavioural code meted out by an Abbess, and the local Priest who finds the internecine conflicts within the nunnery amusing. There’s a kind of apocalyptic force that breaks wind and the end, bringing all the naughtiness in Behind to a closing fold, but that’s not really important.
What elevates Behind among Borowczyk’s substantive body of work is his ability to create humor through careful little narrative curves and gestures, many scattered around like components of a fragmented cartoon gag with the punchline eventually coming down the turnpike – perhaps the most obvious lingering elements from his years as a respected animator in Poland.
There’s the delivery man who brings fresh meat to the nunnery, wearing horse-like blinders to save him from nunnery temptations and give the girls peace of mind that they’re not being mentally dressed down by this buffed stranger from the crude outside world; naturally, when the blinders come off, erotic hell breaks loose.
The delivery man later chops wood for the nuns' itchen ovens, and as lengthy chunks mistakenly crash into a second floor hallway, they’re scooped up by a nun and packed with others in a dresser drawer. Later, another nun – a skilled draftsman who also doodles naked men with submarine-sized phalluses – is requested to use her artistic pen to draw a custom image of Jesus, which is later stenciled onto the flat end of one of the wooden chunks that’s been whittled and smoothened into a fat dildo, so each internal thrust brings the nun closer to God's son.
Another nun, Sister Veronica (Borowczyk's muse, Marina Pierro), likes to keep her mind and body fit through yoga, and does her naked routine in front of a Jesus carving or portrait. In the film’s opening set-piece, where a nun fiddles a gleeful song while her sisters mass pleasure themselves in the church, Veronica lies on the carpet in the Abbess’ office, pelvis raised, and legs gyrating so every leg and fold of her underwear wrap is scrutinized by the big Jesus cross on the wall.
Abbess Flavia Orsini snoops through the sisters’ rooms, opening drawers, reading diaries, and poking straw mattresses with her handy cane/sword combo-stick in search of contraband.
The local priest is delighted when his nephew visits, but the boy is hardly a innocent sketch artist of religious iconography; instead, he hangs close to the cloister, and taunts the nunnery’s most pious soul until she’s driven mad by his advances, and the two consummate their union in the hallowed courtyard, adding to the destructive wind that brings the nunnery’s moral walls crashing down.
Borowczyk was an artist with a playful, provocative, dirty mind, and he was skilled in crafting brilliantly hysterical sequences with a heightened sense of the absurd. His fixations on minutia and integrating them into crazy scenes are sometimes more fascinating than watching the jiggling nun boobies, or whatever erotic silliness he packs into a scene.
Whereas his later films contain some straight-faced dark elements – even The Beast is awkward for its mix of the absurd, horror, and a hairy monster with a dripping, percolating phallus – Behind is decidedly light, and contains some of the nutty character types and rude shots at religion which made his first feature film, Goto, Island of Love (1968) such a gem. Borowczyk never lessens the llevel of ridiculousness, and perhaps his simplest ploy is to have the nuns perpetually wearing their habits regardless of what they’re doing with their nude little bodies.
Cult Epics’ print is taken from a decent NTSC-PAL master, but Tovoli’s decision to use only natural light limits the detail and colours that could’ve been rendered with studio lighting. The hand-held camera work is also sometimes distracting, since one expects staid, eloquent camera portraiture and movements due to the subject matter – naked nuns – and location. And yet the lighting and rough camera movements give the film a realist feel, which also exploits the superb location (a real monastery in Italy) and narrow passages through which the half-naked nuns must travel.
Behind is also fully uncut – something Borowczyk connoisseur Marc Morris (www.mondoerotico.co.uk) and fans Sam Dunn and and Daniel Bird repeatedly point out in the DVD’s making-of featurette, which also covers the problems Borowczyk faced as the narrow subgenre he created for himself, absurdist erotica, became obsolete. The trio also discuss his fixations, long association with actress Marina Pierro, actress Ligia Branice (La jetée), and the making of Behind.
Behind does fall into the nunsploitation category and is larded with touchy-feely, misbehaving nuns, it’s still a Borowczyk Film, and illustrates the methods in which an eccentric artist transcended an otherwise limiting genre.
This title is available separately or part of Cult Epics’ The Nunsploitation Convent (limited to 2500 copies), which features Behind Convent Walls and Norifumi Suzuki’s outrageous anti-Catholic assault School of the Holy Beast / Seijû gakuen (1974). Note: this set is apparently available from Amazon.com with a bonus disc, featuring the “newly produced” documentary The History of Nunsploitation.
Other Borowczyk titles carried by Cult Epics include Goto, Island of Love / Goto, l'île d'amour (1968), The Beast / La bête (1975), Behind Convent Walls / Intérieur d'un couvent / Interno di un convento (1978), and Love Rites / Queen of the Night / Cérémonie d'amour (1987).
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan