Sister Gertrude (Anita Ekberg) was recently treated for a brain tumour. Though the operation was officially declared a success, her doubts remain – as does the iatrogenic morphine habit she acquired – now that she is back in the convent hospital. The experience has done nothing to alter Gertrude's approach, as she continues to treat the patients in a decidedly stern fashion, more martinet than matron, even going so far as to take one old woman's false teeth and angrily crush them underfoot after the woman's had had the incidental temerity to dare interrupt the less than life-affirming story of a martyr's suffering – “….they pulled her teeth out and filled the bleeding sockets with boiling oil….pierced her tongue with a red-hot needle….slit her cheeks with sharp blades….” – that accompanies the day's meal of the customary thin, gruel-like, perhaps diarrhoea-inducing soup.
The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God?
The incident, coupled with an earlier moment of hestitation in changing another patient's drip that almost resulted in her death, leads to Sister Gertrude to being disciplined by the Mother Superior (Alida Valli) and Dr Poirret (Massimo Serato).
The hands of the killer
The hands of the killer?
The eyes of the killer?
It also leads the traumatised old woman to the hospital, where she later dies. At this point Sister Gertude steals the woman's ring and, having sold it at a jewellers in town, goes to a bar / restaurant to pick up a man in a sequence interesting for its foregrounding of active female desire – albeit in a way that, through Getrude's pathology probably wouldn't exactly please mainstream feminist commentators – and which is curiously reminiscent of Angie Dickinson's brief encounter in Dressed to Kill.
The obligatory prospect of lesbian titillation
But Sister Gertrude really wants a man
Unlike Dickinson's character, however, Ekberg's isn't killed for these transgressions. She is definitely punished however, beginning with her own inevitable pangs of guilt and a plunge into ever deeper despair.
The question is whether she has gone so far as to have actually also committed murder then arises as another of the patients, Jannot, is bludgeoned to death, his body being defenestrated into the courtyard by the unidentified assailant.
While Gertrude – who is first on the scene moments later – and the the official report prepared by the Mother Superior suggest suicide, someone voices their belief that they suspect otherwise during a game of truth, although it is not clear whether Peter, who asks the question, is speaking for himself, someone else, or a collective that has become increasingly dissatisfied with their treatment – especially given the over anti-clerical and left-wing sentiments voiced by some of their number.
Classic dark passage suspense
Sister Mathieu, who had earlier confessed her desire for Sister Gertrude, meanwhile confides that she found her veil, covered in Jannot's blood. Jannot's face was certainly swathed in something as his body was dragged to the window, but what happened to this after his fell is less than clear – as is, for that matter, exactly what is real and in Gertrude's mind by this juncture.
... a dummy
... and back to a person again
Worse still follows as another patient, confined to a wheelchair, is found dead after Gertrude had either seen or imagined him having sex with a local prostitute. Dr Roland (Joe Dallesandro), recently arrived as replacement for Dr Poirret (Massimo Serato) following Sister Gertrude's him-or-me ultimatum, also notices certain discrepancies in the drugs store and that his predecessor's diagnoses were entirely sound...
Is Sister Gertrude going insane and / or is someone persecuting her? Was the voice we heard in the confessional at the start of the film hers or that of another?
An image that, no matter how you read it, cannot be good
Inspired by a headline seen by producer Enzo Gallo whose involvement in the production, according to director Giulio Berruti, went about as far as registering the title Suor Omicidi. The case on which the film is based was that of a Belgian nun who murdered a number of elderly patients and stole their valuables, which she kept, although of necessity Berruti and fellow writer Alberto Tarallo added in other elements like lesbianism and drug abuse to spice things up.
One of the patients, clearly more interested in the flesh than the word...
According to Berruti, however, they didn't do this with exploitation entirely in mind, instead seeking to draw high-minded parallels between the need for drugs and the need for God. How well such messages actually made it to the screen is however debatable, with Berruti's remarks about the need for subterfuge when shooting the film in an actual working convent somewhat indicative of compromise - even even before the finished film was marketed in true exploitation style as coming “From the secret files of the Vatican,” at which point the director apparently all but abandoned it to its fate.
As a giallo Suor Omicici / Killer Nun is a decidedle borderline, the murder mystery element of the killer's identify, represented metonmyically through pink surgical gloves, being being something of a non-starter insofar as there is only really one other suspect besides Gertrude herself. Like The Stendhal Syndrome and a number of Almodovar's films, however, the film is really more one that happens to use the thriller format as a route into to explore character, situation and a number of other decidedly more weighty matters.
The issue, again, is how well the filmmakers manage to crossover the underlying prima / terza visione or art / trash divide, encapsulated here by whether the presences of Dallesandro, Ekberg and Castel invokes thoughts of the likes of Trash, La Dolce Vita and In the Name of the Father or of Last House on the Beach, The Screaming Mimi and Orgasmo – or, for that matter, whether the ease with which these performers could move between ostensibly different types of production serves to indicate the fundamental irrelevance of cinematic class distinctions if the resulting films work in their own terms.
Here, though he doesn't neglect to deliver the exploitation goods, with the set-pieces such as the grotesquely rendered sex scene in a storm and the murders themselves particularly well executed, Berutti's approach evinces more artistry than the casual viewer expecting nothing but nunsploitation trash might anticipate.
One notes, for instance, the beautiful construction of the opening sequence and the questions and ideas it introduces in relation to the film as a whole: an overhead God's eye view shot of the nuns filtering into the chapel dehumanises them and suggests ritual in its precise choreography, before a more individuated shot shows the faces of otherwise anonymous supporting character type nuns in the foreground whilst in the background, her face obscured by the omnipresent veil (a detail that also grants a certain strangeness to otherwise conventional two shots throughout the film), another makes an unrepentant confession that, as the father confessor warns, entails losing any state of grace she might have possessed. What we have, in other words, are two potential acousmetric figures, voices heard without their source being identified. One, that of God, remains all too silent and thus, for the doubter, absent throughout. The other, that of the killer, is all too real and present, the question that of whom they will ultimately be visualised – or unveiled – as being; if anyone doubts the relevance of this concept to an obscure Italian oddity, it's worth remembering that the two ultimate acousmetric figures for the concept's exponent, Michel Chion, are God the father and, anterior – or superior, one is tempted to say – before him, the mother.
Elsewhere serendipity plays more of a part. The swathing of Jannot's face proves vaguely reminiscent of one of De Chirico's mannequin figures, for example, such that the plummeting dummy that follows, cloth limbs flopping in all directions curiously ends up strengthening the effectiveness of the sequence by foregrounding the entire issue of what within it is real and, beyond it, what we even mean by reality.
In this he is aided by cinematographer Antonio Maccoppi, equally at home with functional and expressive lightings and mise-en-scene and thereby giving editor Mario Giaccio, whose contributions are likewise sterling, plenty to work with.
The normally reliable Alessandro Alessandroni's score is not one of his better efforts, however. The choral themes work well enough to convey the milieu, but the easy listening and suspense cues heard elsewhere have too much obvious mickey mousing to them at times, as when a wobble board and “out of tune” sitar type tonalities are used to convey Sister Gertrude's mental trauma atop the nightmare montages.
Dallesandro's expression says it all?
While the dubbing means that Dallesandro's doctor doesn't speak with his Noo Yawk accent, his performance again has that recognisable non-actorly quality to it, contrasting with the professionalism of Serato, Valli and the rest of the predominantly Italian cast. This doesn't matter too much, however, insofar the real focus of the film is Ekberg, who impressively channels 20-odd years of life experience, marked her own transition from la dolce vita to a middle age which, if not quite itself leading to a yearning for la dolce morte, must surely have been a been difficult one, into the role.
Neither the most artistic and thought-provoking giallo or nunsploitation film, nor the trashiest, in the end Killer Nun emerges as being of interest for fans of both filone precisely because of its crossover position not only between them but also in its own execution.
This former “video nasty” has recently been released by Shameless in the UK, but has been out on DVD since 2004 on the Blue Underground release, from which these screen captures come; it was formerly also on video from Redemption.
A nice review of the film can be found at http://twtd.bluemountains.net.au/Rick/liz_kn.htm