Southern Italy early in the thirteenth century, and Flavia (Florinda Bolkan) was placed in a convent by her domineering father when she was a child, yet the image of a Muslim soldier she witnessed her father putting to death has stayed with her for years. Now, she is growing more and more dispirited with her world and its constrictions, not to mention its liberally applied torture, but can only confide in her Jewish friend Abraham (Claudio Cassinelli). Today, the Tarantula cult arrive at the convent doors, banging on them to be let in and the Mother Superior relents, allowing them the run of the place as they cannot control their religious frenzy; this makes Flavia question all the more...
If you were under the impression that the Middle Ages in Europe were a great old time, then co-writer and director Gianfranco Mingozzi's Flavia the Heretic should shatter your illusions pretty comprehensively. Misery is the order of the day as we follow the title character's consciousness awakening, based on a true incident from history according to the caption at the end credits, and this being a seventies film, the influence of feminism is deeply felt. Flavia, we are meant to realise, was some kind of pioneer in the cause of modernising the church.
Of course, her idea of modernising was to bring it down from within with the willing assistance of an army of marauding Muslims, which probably won't be your idea of an improvement. Before we get to that stage, Flavia is disgusted by the torture of Livia (Raika Juri), one of her fellow nuns who fell under the spell of the Tarantula cult and went into a frenzy, for which she is brutalised to snap her out of it (no surprises when it makes her worse). That same day, Flavia witnesses the rape of a peasant girl by a French nobleman, which fills her with righteous anger.
What gives men carte blanche to treat women exactly how they wish just because they are the leaders of the religion? wonders Flavia, and further to that muses on why God has to be male, and whether the organised religion she is a part of is any better than the crazies of the Tarantula cult. She's a very resentful woman, and played by Bolkan with her masculine looks she comes across as the prototype for all the clichés of the women's liberation movement of the decade the film was made, as if to prove herself the equal of the men.
After fleeing into the countryside with Abraham, the couple are caught and punished by the authorities, injustice being one of the themes. After further instruction by the eccentric and strong-minded Sister Agnes (María Casares), Flavia decides to secure her revenge, and the rebel nun eventually invites the Muslim army into the convent to bump off the leaders and free the nuns from the yoke of religion. She even gets a new boyfriend, Ahmed (Anthony Higgins) and hallucinates in a bizarre passage that sees naked nuns cavorting, climbing onto the cross and clambering into a cow's carcass for reasons which remain obscure. Ken Russell has a lot to answer for. This can't last, and Mingozzi seems determined to shock the viewer out of presumed complacency with the unjustness of it all, siding with Flavia all the way. More likely the sullen tone to the provocation will sabotage many feelings to that end, however. Music by Nicola Piovani.