Visions of Ecstasy (1989) – By Roger Carpenter

Teresa of Avila was a real-life Carmelite nun who lived in Spain during the 16th century. 40 years after her death in 1582, she was canonized and became known as Saint Teresa of Jesus. She was perhaps most famous for the visions she wrote of, claiming to have made contact with Jesus’ bodily, though invisible, form which drove her into a state of pure ecstasy.

In 1989, a British photographer who specialized in dark eroticism, made an experimental film based upon St. Teresa’s writings. His name was Nigel Wingrove. Wingrove, a first-time filmmaker, created an 18-minute short that depicted St. Teresa achieving ecstasy and envisioning herself alternately tied up and being made love to by a flaxen-haired young woman and making love to Christ himself, still crucified upon the cross. When shown to the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), Wingrove was told that the film was blasphemous and the film was refused a rating, effectively banning it from ever being shown in Britain. Thus began the long, fascinating, and torturous journey to DVD of Visions of Ecstasy, which is finally available in both Britain and America after a ban of over two decades. The film was the subject of a legal battle shortly after it was banned, eventually making an appearance at no less than the European Court of Human Rights in 1996, though ultimately losing the battle. Then in 2008 the blasphemy laws were appealed in Britain, paving the way for Visions of Ecstasy to finally be released in its entirety in 2011, 22 years after it was made. It has just recently been released in America as well.

The film itself has many striking images, no surprise if one is familiar with Wingrove’s boundary-pushing, darkly erotic work in both still and moving images. One can easily understand how the film could be a lightning rod for controversy. Created with no dialogue but a hauntingly effective musical score by Steven Severin (of Siouxsie and the Banshees fame), the film depicts Teresa of Avila as she approaches a life-sized crucifix. Wanting to become one with Christ, she shoves large nails into her palms, attempting to recreate the pain he must have felt during the crucifixion. As her visions begin, she is overcome with ecstasy, writhing at the foot of the cross and rubbing her own blood over her body in what could (or could not) be interpreted as a sexualized manner. At one point during her writhing she knocks over a chalice filled with Christ’s blood, which she then licks off of the floor. As she reaches a state of ecstasy, her visions begin.

One vision is of Teresa’s own psyche crawling spider-like towards Teresa’s corporeal self, which has her hands bound above her head. As her psyche reaches her physical body, the psyche begins to caress and to kiss her body. This is intercut with the vision of Teresa first caressing and then finally mounting Jesus while he lies nailed to the cross. They kiss and as Teresa’s hand slowly reaches for Jesus’ crucified hand, the fingers interconnect and close upon each other. This final scene was key to getting the film banned as the BBFC claimed that Christ moving and closing his hand around Teresa’s in what could be construed as a romantic gesture was blasphemous. Indeed, these images could certainly be inflammatory to a certain segment of the population; however, Wingrove does a good job of minimizing the impact of these scenes by making them tender instead of totally prurient. Severin’s score is superb and quite effective.

Visions of Ecstasy is one of the final releases of 2012 from the partnership formed between Wingrove’s Redemption Label and Kino-Lorber. This partnership has spawned about three dozen superb releases this year of various films in fantastic packaging and filled with special features. Visions of Ecstasy is no different. It comes chock full of special features, including Wingrove’s short films Axel (1988) and Faustine (1990) as well as his first full-length feature, a nunsploitation film entitled Sacred Flesh (2000). There are also interviews, a nunsploitation retrospective, and even a 30-plus page booklet on DVD-ROM exploring the censorship of Visions of Ecstasy.

Sacred Flesh is also an interesting film. Originally slated as a vampire film, Wingrove was approached by the BBC who wanted to do a piece on what they had heard was a "nun movie". Sensing some free publicity, Wingrove wisely changed his film’s major themes. Essentially planned as a mid-length anthology of erotic tales, at the last minute it was decided to attempt a theatrical release, so in a matter of days, the film was padded and recut . This makes the film a bit blocky and formulaic at times, with entire scenes that lead to nothing, and the opening 20 minutes or so are very slow; however, once the Abbot and his assistant reach the convent the action and eroticism pick up and the film manages to entertain. While I’ve seen better nunsploitation, I’ve also seen much worse. Sacred Flesh, though it suffers from some poor acting and some cheap sets, is well worth a viewing or two.

For viewers who aren’t easily offended by religious-erotic imagery, this collection of films–seen for the first time ever in America–may be of extreme interest; viewers who are easily offended may want to steer away from this release.