When Father Vincente (Berger) catches 15 year old Maria Rosalea (Hemingway) fooling around with her boyfriend, a visit to her destitute mother results in Maria getting a one-way ticket to the Serreda Iris cloister where she must atone for her sins. After Mother Alma (Susan Sarandon lookalike Ana Zanatti) confirms that she is still a virgin, Vincente begins to weave his wicked web, persuading his charge to relay the contents of her erotic dreams; a confession that leads to several layers of thorns being applied to her skin as a painful three-day punishment. In a desperate cry for help, Maria asks one of the nuns to post despatch a letter to her mother, a decision that backfires as her missive ends up in the hands of Mother Alma. This time, retribution is to be far more severe as Maria discovers her sacred virginity will be offered to Satan himself.
Part of Franco's mostly fruitful 15 picture association with Erwin C. Dietrich, Love Letters Of A Portuguese Nun could almost be bracketed with his infamous Women In Prison films. While it doesn't go as far as the likes of Barbed Wire Dolls or Sadomania, Love Letters does contain extremely graphic scenes of torture inflicted on Susan Hemingway, who looks uncomfortably close to her character's age. Women usually emerge as the strongest, most resourceful figures in Franco's wild and wonderful world, yet few command our sympathy and admiration more than Maria. A bloody, bone-stretching session on the rack; encounters with a red hot poker; forced oral sex with Vincente (ending with an almost subliminal cut of semen splattering Maria's face) and an outrageous carnal coupling with the devil himself are just a few examples of a catalogue of indignities forced on Maria by an evil regime that feeds on hysteria, and on the outdated beliefs of ignorant superiors.
While this is a long way from being one of Franco's tamer efforts, crisp production values, a good script and solid, character-driven acting from Hemingway, Berger and Zanatti take this a few notches above most exploitation fare.
Granted, the events leading up to the conclusion may be cliched in the extreme and the final image will leave you wanting to see more, but this should not detract from a polished historical drama that's now enjoying a new lease of life.
Thanks to the efforts of Erwin Dietrich, V.I.P. Films are in the process of releasing onto DVD all 15 of the films from the Franco/Dietrich partnership. Picture quality on this disc is superb, with rich, vibrant colours and nice, inky blacks. Extras include brief interviews with Franco, Dietrich and Fux and an informative documentary charting the restoration work involved in turning a plague-ridden print of Jack The Ripper into a sumptuous visual feast.
Anchor Bay UK have just released Love Letters, utilising the same gorgeous print as VIP and this film is available separately, or as part of a special Jess Franco box set to be released in the UK this Autumn. While I would love to unreservedly recommend the UK release, it would be remiss of me not to point out that LLOAPN is missing some 6m 15s due to cuts imposed by the BBFC. While the V.I.P. disc is still available - and at approx £25 represents a more costly purchase - the Anchor Bay release is more easily available. I did expect the board to impose some cuts on this film, given the sorry state of censorship in this (un)fair isle, but confess to being amazed by their butchery. The choice is yours.
Legendary director of predominantly sex-and-horror-based material, Spanish-born Jesus Franco had as many as 200 directing credits to his name. Trained initially as a musician before studying film at the Sorbonne in Paris, Franco began directing in the late 50s. By using the same actors, sets and locations on many films, Franco has maintained an astonishing workrate, and while the quality of his work has sometimes suffered because of this, films such as Virgin Amongst the Living dead, Eugenie, Succubus and She Killed in Ecstasy remain distinctive slices of 60s/70s art-trash.
Most of his films have been released in multiple versions with wildly differing titles, while Franco himself has directed under a bewildering number of pseudonyms. Actors who have regularly appeared in his films include Klaus Kinski, Christopher Lee and wife Lina Romay; fans should also look out for his name on the credits of Orson Welles' Chimes of Midnight, on which he worked as assistant director.