Nuns, Thorns, and Desire: The School of The Holy Beast (1974)

WARNING: This review contains graphic imagery and descriptions.

I often get on a soapbox about the American influences apparent in Japanese film, particularly as it relates to action, romance and indie films.  However, I have come to a very distinct realization following my recent viewing of The School of the Holy Beast, and that is that nothing is comparable to Japanese cult films.  They exist in their own world void of influence and logical imagery.  This is one of the most bizarre Japanese works I have scene, alongside Hausu and Jigoku.  The film is saturated with repressed homosexuality, sadomasochism and nudity...it is more reminiscent of a underground pornography than artistic filmmaking.  Despite this statement, it is a sound film that manages to take itself seriously at all the right moments and lay on the cheese at others.  It is a signifier of seventies filmmaking that is as iconic as it is abrasive. A gem of gore cinema that happens to deliver a rather large-scale critique of patriarchal opression in the most unconventional terms.

The film, in a rather nonchalant manner, follows Maya (Yumi Takagawa) a rebellious young woman who has taken it upon herself to seek reform at a local abbey.  From the onset, the abbey appears to be rather blasé, adhering to the regular practices of cleaning, cooking and singing as one would expect.  However, as Maya realizes during a night of restlessness, this particular abbey is preoccupied with punishment on a personal and abbey-wide scale.  As she watches a fellow nun flagellate herself to avoid sin Maya takes it upon herself to become a spy of sorts for the head nuns catching the other nuns in acts of theft, homosexuality and lesser "vices."  The punishments for actions include violent whippings and, as Maya discovers after her own immoral act, binding with rose branches.  These acts are done in the nude while the head nuns look on longingly.  This entire cycle of punishment is arced by Maya's fascination with the appointed abbey priest who appears to have sexual interest in many of the nuns, particularly Maya.  After a plot to exploit the higher nuns' indiscretions, Maya comes to realize the local priest is actually her father resulting in issues of incest and profanity, which is exemplified by a scene of Maya succumbing to pissing on a cross.  Surprisingly this dually degrading and gorgeously stunning film simply ends with Maya away from the abbey.  It is a nunsploitation film by definition and is loyal to the genre by showing only the images associated.

The film is obsessed with clearly demarcating all problems associated with patriarchy as it relates to religion, in this particular case Catholicism.  In fact, it is this critique that helps this film avoid being overtly degrading to women.  With the Laura Mulvey put aside, it promotes a rather freeing notion of femininity.  Each act of aggression, degradation and profanity is blatantly and inextricably tied to patriarchy.  The acts of punishment are done in the name of God and Christ, both obviously associated with maleness in the film.  Many of the nuns deaths are a result of phallic objects, the most obvious being one nun's death by falling on a priests staff.  Furthermore, the jealously and subsequent vengeance that exists in the abbey is almost wholly fueled by the lecherous priest who is involved with many of the nun's including both Maya and her mother.  It is a literal depiction of patriarchy screwing generations of women, a rather brilliant moment in a graphically driven film.  The film's characters even chastise acts of homosexuality for no apparent reason, yet refrain from noting the problems of incest and force intercourse with multiple problems, all with the intent to show a connection between the churches illogical views of unquestioned male superiority as it relates to patriarchal roots.  It is a film that uses exploitation as a guise, yet incorporates feminist critique between the lines.  It is brilliant but takes a close eye to catch.

The School of the Holy Beast is a graphic film and not meant for everybody, but for those who enjoy cult cinema, particularly from Asia, I would suggest getting a hard to find copy.

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