Working from John Whiting’s play of the same title, and Aldous Huxley’s book, The Devils of Loudun, Ken Russell has taken some historical liberties in fashioning the story of Father Grandier (Oliver Reed), sensually liberated priest in 17th-century France whose ethics brought him into conflict with the political ambitions of Cardinal Richelieu and the Catholic Church, and whose virile presence and backstairs reputation cued the erotic fantasies of a humpbacked nun, Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave).
When this sister’s lustful ravings begin to infect other nuns in her convent, the Church, through its military agent (Dudley Sutton), brings in an exorcist (Michael Gothard) to stage circus-like public purges of the naked, foulmouthed nuns which result in Grandier’s conviction on heresy charges, his torture and burning at the stake.
As if the story alone weren’t bizarre enough, Russell has spared nothing in hyping the historic events by stressing the grisly at the expense of dramatic unity.
Given Russell’s frantic pacing, performances tend to get lost amid the savagery. Reed carries the film with an admirably restrained portrayal of the doomed priest. Redgrave, on screen only sporadically, is stunning as the salacious sister.