Stream With a Theme

Stream With a Theme: The Best Nun Films

As Paul Verhoeven's audacious Benedetta lands in cinemas, Steph Green highlights some worthy features about cinematic Sisters...

When it comes to cinema, nuns have it tough. When they’re not struggling to reconcile their lofty connection to God with a desire to truly experience life, they’re being sadistically punished in nunsploitation flicks that exploit their unique situations for dramatic pay-off. Best believe that if Ken Russell’s sicko masterpiece The Devils were available to stream, it would have made this list.

In Benedetta, Paul Verhoeven’s addition to a fraught canon, he revisits the troubled life of a real sister who was persecuted for purported false mysticism and lesbianism in 17th century Tuscany. On the occasion of the film’s release, revisit these other films that parse the lives of nuns – from a murderous “video nasty” to prestige, Oscar-winning dramas…

 

Black Narcissus (1947)

Where to stream it: Britbox

Putting the nasty in monastic, Powell and Pressburger’s Himalayas-set masterpiece made use of matte paintings, Technicolour and erotic anguish to tell the story of a group of Anglican nuns driven to a frenzy by Mr. Dean, an Englishman prone to wearing very short shorts. Kathleen Byron is deliciously wicked as the unhinged Sister Ruth, sparring with Deborah Kerr’s Sister Clodagh as their oppressive environment and innate impulses make the religious mission at hand ever difficult. Though the brownface and casual racism shocks when viewed today, what ultimately endures is a sense of modernity; Martin Scorsese called it “one of the first truly erotic films.”

 

Lilies of the Field (1963)

Where to stream it: Prime Video

Sidney Poitier made history as the first Black man to win an Academy Award in Lilies of the Field, which sees his character, Homer, waylaid by a group of German nuns adamant that he has been sent by God to help them construct a place of worship in the Arizona desert. As he bickers with the mother superior and engages the nuns in heartwarming call-and-response gospel singalongs, he begins to find a purpose in his unpaid work for the group of sisters. It’s not the most gripping of plots – of which the main event is the building of a chapel – and is hamstrung somewhat with its religious allegories and preoccupations, but Poitier’s poise and luminosity is hard to deny.

 

Killer Nun (1979)

Where to stream it: Prime Video

A patently ridiculous slice of Italo-sleaze, nunsploitation flick Killer Nun was labeled a “video nasty” by Britain’s censorship board and, while not really what we’d call a “good film,” is the perfect distillation of nunsploitation – a genre that no list of nun films would be complete without. It stars La Dolce Vita actress Anita Ekberg as a morphine-addicted nun slowly losing her mind in the Catholic hospital she works in, soon resorting to pawning her geriatric patients’ jewellery in order to sneak into town for a quick fix and anonymous sex. Throw in some sadistic murders, lesbianism, giallo stylings and bad dubbing, and the entire thing winds up a total hoot.

 

Agnes of God (1985)

Where to stream it: Prime Video

Meg Tilly is spectacular in Agnes of God as a young novice embroiled in a scandal after giving birth to a child and, later, apparently killing it. Like the titular character in Verhoeven’s Benedetta, Agnes displays signs of the stigmata, and the audience is tasked with deciding – along with Jane Fonda’s psychiatrist character – whether Agnes is fit to stand trial or is suffering from diminished capacity. Scenes between Tilly, Fonda and Anne Bancroft as the mother superior are alive with a menacing energy, but it does fall prey to the stage-to-screen adaptation issue whereby the entire thing feels more suited to the claustrophobic confines of live theatre.

Bad Lieutenant (1992)

Where to stream it: Apple TV

Abel Ferrara is known for pushing boundaries when it comes to Catholicism; while in his early masterpiece Ms .45 his protagonist committed mass murder while dressed in the habit, Bad Lieutenant sees Harvey Keitel as a corrupt cop assigned to investigate the brutal rape of a nun (Frankie Thorn). The scenes between them are truly horrible to watch, these two desperate people unable to find answers to their questions regarding forgiveness, purpose and truth. Among the harrowing scenes of drug addiction and brutal sexual assault, you may find something, somewhere, resembling redemption. It is sleaze spun into sincerity – Ferrara’s lasting trademark.

 

Dead Man Walking (1995)

Where to stream it: Prime Video

Dead Man Walking is a rare thing: an Oscar-bait weepy that manages to chip away at your defences, leaving your face sodden by its climax despite all cynical barriers. Tim Robbins directed his then-wife Susan Sarandon to Oscar-winning glory in this simple, soul-searching story of a nun, Sister Helen, who acts as spiritual counsel to a prisoner on death row (Sean Penn). While today the film might cause that dreaded word – discourse – for the space and patience given to its racist and sexist main character, it is a justice drama that grapples with thorny, interesting dilemmas. In his glowing review, Roger Ebert put it simply: “This film ennobles filmmaking.”

 

Ida (2013)

Where to stream it: BFI Player

With ascetic, Bressonian camerawork and laser-sharp monochromatic cinematography, Paweł Pawlikowski’s Oscar-winning Ida is a far warmer a movie that its visuals let on. Starring Agata Trzebuchowska in the inscrutable titular role, we watch a young novitiate embark on a road trip with her freewheeling aunt, bent on discovering a family secret involving the German occupation of Poland during WWII. A woozily romantic dance set to John Coltrane’s “Naima” is one highlight, but it’s the overall atmosphere of familial reconciliation and identity searching that truly marks this work – the stakes involved when women are asked to abandon their every instinct in order to forge an unfettered connection to God.

 

Novitiate (2017)

Where to stream it: Prime Video

Depicting the Catholic nunnery as a nefarious system that attracts and then preys upon the weak, Novitiate introduces a group of postulants in the 1950s who are looking to the habit as a way to find meaning in their lives. One member of the group, Sister Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), takes her novitiate vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to the extreme – refusing visits from her mother, and eventually starving herself in order to feel God’s love. The church’s transition to Vatican II’s softer teachings, which disavow such extreme acts of self-flagellation, is unwelcomed by Reverend Mother Marie Saint-Clair (Melissa Leo), whose sadism forces Cathleen to seek sapphic comfort in the arms of a fellow Sister.

Benedetta is released in UK cinemas on 15 April.

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