DAMNED IF YOU DON’T (Su Friedrich, 1987)

Su Friedrich’s exquisite black-and-white Damned If You Don’t catches at its opening a modern nun in her habit, zestily walking and eating an ice-cream cone. The image is packed: a nun in motion rather than prayerful repose, here today but in her (modified over centuries) ancient dress, and sufficiently indulging in sensual pleasure to suggest sexual sublimation.
     For a 42-minute film, this one is crammed full of engaging material, at once dead-serious and very funny, while appearing unstressed, free and flowing. It is the kind of experimental piece that effortlessly accommodates multiple voiceovers and mysterious passages of sheer silence.
     A woman watches on television Black Narcissus (1947), about sexually repressed nuns at an isolated convent in India. To the flickering scenes, commentary is applied stressing the lingering effects of a Roman Catholic upbringing: here, dementia derived from the equation of sex and depravity. The present-day TV-viewer, like Friedrich, is a lesbian; she is interested in a nun, whom she pursues, but who feels barred from giving in to her heart’s desire.
     However, Friedrich’s bit of plot is perhaps mere occasion for the contexts that Friedrich provides—which is to say, what appears to be context here is actually text. Another “context”: in seventeenth century Italy, the testimony by Sister Crivelli against the abbess of their convent, Sister Benedetta, who drew Sister Crivelli into overnight sexual intimacies to relieve her—Sister Benedetta, that is—of physical torments. Jesus even appears, to give Sister Benedetta his throbbing heart when she needs a new heart, which Sister Crivelli finds hot to the touch. Hilarious stuff—except that Sister Benedetta was imprisoned for 35 years: the rest of her life.
     You’re damned if you do it and, as in Black Narcissus, damned if you don’t.
     Do it.

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