Originally written for Hell Broke Luce
Does it really surprise anybody that Italy is still cranking out quality horror? It really shouldn’t, I mean, the talented list of filmmakers hailing from said country is ridiculous. Argento, Fulci, Bava, Deodato, Martino, ect… You get the point. It’s almost unfair. Well, Ivan Zuccon is another name that can be added to that list. I know that's a mighty big statement but before I elaborate on why it’s tangent time. The last few years have seen a lot of throwbacks to subgenres that were prevalent during golden days of exploitation, grindhouse, drive-in, whatever you want to call it films. Films like Tarintino and Rodriguez’s Grindhouse double feature, Machete, Hobo With a Shotgun, Dear God No! and so on and so forth. Films that wear their influences on their sleeves and make no apologies for it, and nor should they. They’re all wicked fun watches and were made by filmmakers with a genuine love for that type of cinema. They get it right. Well, most of them do. What does all that have to do with Ivan Zuccon and his 2007 film Nympha? I’ll tell you what. Nympha stylishly tips it’s hat to the classic nunsploitation subgenre, all the while being something uniquely it’s own, being a more than refreshing stand out in the field of religious horror, which is feat in itself when you consider the over saturation of said field during the last few years with stale and derivative films, making Nympha all the more endearing.
On the recommendation of her bishop, Sarah (Tiffany Shepis), a young American woman travels to Italy to join the New Order nunnery to devote her life entirely to god and religion. Not long after arriving however, she finds out that the order is not what she had in mind at all, as the sisters idea of her getting closer to involves depriving her of her senses by various means of torture, and during her “medical examination”, her eyes are burned with acid and her eardrums punctured. In between these sessions she is locked in her room and while confined has strange visions of an older, devoutly religious man, Geremia, and a pregnant woman. The woman dies during childbirth, and the baby is given the name Ninfa (why they spelled it differently for the title I have no idea. Maybe because is looks cooler?) and Geremia is revealed to be her grandfather who ends up raising her. Sarah’s visions soon take a sinister turn, as Geremia turns out to be not just a highly devout man, but a fanatical lunatic who believes god is speaking directly too him, and that he is doing his will by locking people in his attack and murdering them. The visions then shift to Ninfa as a young adult, now married and deeply disturbed due to her childhood. Sarah even sees Nifna appear to her in her room, and Sarah soon discovers the truth about Ninfa, who she is, why exactly she is appearing to her and ultimately the shocking truth about the New Order nunnery.
I’ll get this right out of the way first thing, Nympha has the potential to frustrate many viewers and after reading other reviews for it, it has done just that. Now, this knee jerk reaction is somewhat justifiable, but to dismiss the film so early on like others have done is a huge mistake. Nympha is structured in a way where it suddenly jumps from seemingly one storyline to another. You’ve just briefly gotten to know Sarah and her reasons for joining the order and the next instant the focus is all on the grandfather, flashback style, and this style of storytelling is apt to lead to confusion. The thing is though, it all has a point, a very big one in fact, and what may seem totally random at first does make complete sense in the long run, as it all comes full circle, beginning and ending with Sarah, and honestly, I thought it was nice to see a film take you out of your comfort zone narrative wise. It’s not David Lynch weird, but it’s still pretty out there. Another thing, don’t think this is another boring “torture porn” flick either. To be honest the torture element is actually pretty minimal, acting as a minor plot device if anything. Sarah’s visions are the driving point of the story, and the weirder they got (and they do get really strange), the more intriguing the mystery of Ninfa became, especially when the focus is on the grandfather. It’s obvious from the start that he’s a little off, but without giving anything away other than what I said in the plot synopsis, man, the guy is fucking nuts, and a film like this takes it places you wouldn’t expect. It’s got balls for sure, and the incredibly fucked up revelation about everything at the end makes it all more than worth it. It’s almost a twist within a twist ending, although if I have one minor complaint it’d be that one of the details revealed to us near the end of the film is a bit far fetched. I know, I know it’s a movie but even still you’ll be wondering exactly how something like it could have happened, even in magic movie land. Shepis kills it, without question her finest performance to date, carrying the film and perfectly capturing the fear and confusion that someone going through what her character is would experience. She’s acting alone too in a good majority of the scenes, and her reactions to the visions her character is seeing are more than convincing. I totally bought it.
Zuccon is defiantly a director that proves it’s possible to make your film look great within the confines of shooting on digital video. There’s almost an art house quality to Nympha, and at times I was reminded of the late, great French filmmaker Jean Rollin. Like Rollin, Zuccon knows how to perfectly create a dream like state, sometimes with little or no dialogue, letting the images do all the work putting the viewer in a daze of sorts. You might not know exactly what’s going on, but your fixated on the screen. This is especially the case with the scenes of Shepis alone, and again those scenes are a testament to Shepis’ acting talents. Naturally, the vision/flashback sequences have sort of an existential vibe to them, as we’re not entirely sure exactly what they are for the majority of the film. Is Sarah dreaming? Is she hallucinating? Is she going crazy from being tortured by psycho nuns? There’s always an air of mystery about them, and, Zuccon presents them in a way in which again, they might come off as confusing, yet incredibly enticing. Remember this film is a tribute to nunsploiation, and Zuccon throws in a nice Rollinesque lesbian scene with Sarah and the older Ninfa. Yeah it’s totally random and it doesn’t really make any sense but do you care? I certainly didn’t. Location plays a big part in making Nympha succeed the way it does, as The New Order is one dingy looking convent. Not exactly the ideal place to get in touch with your spiritual side, the building gives off ominous feelings right from the beginning of the film and that same cold, almost sickly feeling the place puts out there never lets up. There are some occasional nice outside shots of the Italian countryside, which provide some nice contrast and a false sense of security before Zuccon lets the horror run loose. Low budget be damned, atmosphere is something Zuccon knows how to create, and he knows it well, and never once does the digital look hinder the mood of the film.
Zuccon would follow up Nympha in 2008 with Colour From the Dark, another atmospheric creepfest, loosely based on H.P. Lovecraft’s The Colour out of Space featuring genre goddess Debbie Rochon (although “loosely” is the key word when discussing Colour, so if you’re a Lovecraft purist try not to get butthurt over the changes made as others have if you decide to check it out). That film, along with Nympha stand as the two best examples of Zuccon’s talents and originality as a director. His forthcoming project Wrath of the Crows is looking like his most promising yet, as it will feature BOTH Shepis and Rochon in the same film. How fucking cool is that? Nympha is one of the stranger films to come out in recent memory, and it works, not just as an ode to the nunsploitaion films of yesteryear, but as a unique religious horror film with more than it’s share of originality, complete with a knockout performance from Shepis. She should tackle more roles like this, she’s got the range. Don’t dismiss it on account of it’s odd narrative structure (truth be told, I often wonder if those who bash it because of this actually watched the entire film), you’d be cheating yourself out of a great film. It’s great to know there are still incredibly creative and ambitious independent horror filmmakers out there, putting out quality product, paying respect to what came before while putting their own stamp on things, and as long as there are directors like Zuccon making films like Nympha, things will be just fine.
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