Sacred Flesh

UK 1999

Reviewed by Linda Ruth Williams


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Sister Elizabeth, the mother superior of a medieval convent, has visions of Mary Magdalene and a skeletal dead nun. Father Henry, the abbot, and his servant Richard are summoned by the convent's abbess to help with the hysteria spreading among the order.

Elizabeth recounts the confessions and fantasies of the nuns, flagellating herself and becoming excited as she does so: Sister Sarah masturbates; Sisters Mary and Helena flagellate one another and then have sex. Sister Catherine is violated by Fathers James and Peter. Finally, Sisters Jane, Teresa and Helen engage in three-way sex and violate Sister Ann after tying her to a cross. Elizabeth writhes violently in her cell and, as she dies, is tormented by visions of a crucified woman and Christ's beating Sacred Heart.


Even in the lives of Sight and Sound readers there may be a place for the kind of film you watch on a Friday night with a six-pack and a takeaway meal. If you want bonking and bondage with your beer and biriani, then Sacred Flesh may be the film for you. The trouble is, one suspects director Nigel Wingrove had higher hopes for his film, judging from the extensive sexual philosophising on the nature and nurture of repression which punctuates the action.

Sacred Flesh is the latest move in a notorious career of censor-baiting and sleaze-purveying which has established Wingrove as mogul of Salvation Films, the company behind neo-exploitation labels Redemption, Jezebel, Purgatory, Carnal and Sacrament. Wingrove specialises in mad, sexy nuns and the censorship challenges they provoke. Visions of Ecstasy (a lurid, short treatise on the erotic visions of St Teresa of Avila) failed to get a video certificate from the British Board of Film Classification on grounds of blasphemy, so he gamely took it to the European Court of Human Rights in what proved to be a test case for judging comparative standards of visual materials in the EC. He lost.

Now Sacred Flesh, endowed with the unexpected respectability of a cinematic release, has installed the hallucinating mother superior of a hysterically randy medieval convent as Teresa's wayward stable-mate. Exemplary Salvation fodder, Sacred Flesh is replete with deranged nymphets tearing off their habits and lasciviously mounting giant crosses, its overwrought screenplay fleshed out by a range of underwrought acting styles.

The structure is simple: mother superior Sister Elizabeth and a demonic Mary Magdalene (reconstructed in Elizabeth's imagination back into the whore she originally was) debate the merits of desire and the dangers of chastity on the blue-screen backed stage of a heavenly antechamber. Mary reminds Elizabeth that since her convent is nothing but a seething mass of cocooned desire she too is the victim and agent of her own wanton desires. Elizabeth then narrates four fantasy erotic set pieces, punctuated by discussions between, on the one hand, the convent's old abbess and a priest and, on the other, Elizabeth and a peculiar dead nun who looks and sounds like the mutant love child of Darth Vader and Dr Who's Davros.

The sex scenes unfold with a formulaic pornographic logic, starting simply and building to fireworks at the end, giving the audience the chance to catch their breath (as it were) by passing the time with talk and character establishment. But Wingrove knows what his punters want from a kinky convent flick, so the Sapphic pent-up desires run rampant. From solitary nuns masturbating to three-way lesbian sex and a climactic nun-on-nun crucifix-bondage scene, the porn scenarios tread a fine line between soft- and hardcore. Brief flashes of female genitalia, which until recently were cast well beyond the pale of certification, are given screen space, as are the whip and the rope. Sacred Flesh could easily have been titled Whipping in Wimples, so fond is it of women engaging in flagellation as their semi-nakedness is framed by disparate items of ecclesiastic apparel.

So will Sacred Flesh be in everyone's list of the worst ten films of this year? Probably. But that's not to say there isn't a lot that is both likeable and amusing about it. If the film has a sexual theory, it's volcanic: enforced virginity only bottles up desire, which will explode all the more violently the harder you contain it, a harmlessly liberal philosophy if ever there was one.

The film's faults, though many, are mitigated by the theatrical pleasures of a ludicrously purple script (hell-bent on alliterating itself into the record books) and a porno-glam mise en scène which ensures every nun comes equipped with her own generous make-up bag and pubic depilation kit. Judged on its own terms, Sacred Flesh knows what it's trying to do and does it rather inventively on a tiny budget. As long as audiences are more prepared for a pornographic Carry on Convent than Ken Russell's The Devils or Powell and Pressburger's classic of the genre Black Narcissus (lipstick quota notwithstanding), this may be a camp cult classic in the making.


Nigel Wingrove
Louise Ross
Nigel Wingrove
Directors of Photography
Chris Herd
James MacDonald
Geoff Mills
Chris Shaw
Jake West
Art Director
Nigel Wingrove
Steve Pittis
Band of Pain
©Salvation Films Ltd.
Production Companies
Salvation Films in association with The 400 Company present a Gothica production
Executive Producer
Mark Sloper
Design Director
Chris Jennings
Arundi Asregadoo
Design Production Manager
Dallas Synnott
Effects Editor
Miles Green
Editbox Editor
Tim Smith
Special Effects
M2 Television
Graphic Design
John Murrell
Set Designer
Tony Gibas
Dena Costello
Liberty Shaw
Sally Smith
Title Sequence
Jake West
Lisa Lloyd
Tom Webster
Dubbing Mixers
Julian Kyle
Nigel Glynn-Davies
Equestrian Handlers
Sue Edwards
Sian Fletcher
Sally Tremaine
Sister Elizabeth
Moyna Cope
Simon Hill
Father Henry, the abbot
Kristina Bill
Mary Magdalene
Rachel Taggart
Eileen Daly
Daisy Weston
Sister Brigitte
Moses Rockman
Emily Booth
Williams girl
Laura Plair
Leasa Carlyon
Louise Linehan
Maid Marion
Mary Grant
Daisy Weston
Leasa Carlyon
Nicole Bouchet
incarcerated nun
Louise Ross
mad nun
Cindy Read
whipping nun
Michelle Thorne
Sister Sarah
Marc Morris
Chris Charlston
Hannah Callow
Sister Helena
Amanda Dawkins
Sister Mary
Majella Shepherd
Novice Catherine
Christopher Adamson
Father Peter
Philip Serfaty
Father James
Nicole Bouchet
Sister Helen
Cassandra Bochsler
Sister Teresa
Anneka Svenska
Sister Ann
Sarah McLean
Sister Jane
Cindy Read
female Christ
Salvation Films
75 minutes
Cuts substituted with new material
In Colour
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011