2011, Bolivia. Directed by Jac Avila. Starring Amy Hesketh, Mila Joya, Beto Lopez, Alejandro Loayza, Eric Calancha, Erix Antoine, Maria Esther Arteaga, Omar Aldayuz
The term “guilty pleasure” is usually used to signify the enjoyment of some mass-entertainment product that is easy on the intellect, without the moral or mental challenges that accompany higher Art, with a capital “A”. Something cheesy and simple, cultural junk food that we really don’t want our more discerning friends to know we snack upon.
But what about when the cultural object isn’t so simple, so easy? What if it’s morally fraught, and can either be quite thought provoking or most definitely not, depending on how you view it? What if it’s questionable enough to make us feel guilt at enjoying it? Or if not actual “guilt”, then…ambivalence? Uneasiness?
For me, such a (sub)cultural product is the low-budget independent film Maleficarum, written and directed by Jac Avila and starring, with considerable creative input, Amy Hesketh.
Avila and Hesketh are based in La Paz, Bolivia, and have built a cult following with a string of low-budget films with certain themes for several years now with their production company Pachamama Films. Avila is South American-born but spent much time in the United States; Hesketh is an American actress who met Avila at one of his film premiers while travelling the world, started up a conversation, and they have continued that conversation via their films ever since. Their collaborations—one of them directs while the other acts—usually feature a dark and brutal sexuality, often short on consent, and have delved into horror, history, the supernatural, BDSM, and, with Maleficarum, the Spanish Inquisition in South America.
Despite the copious amounts of female flesh on display in Maleficarum, it would certainly be wrong to call it an “erotic” or even BDSM film. Safe, sane, and consensual? Not. Even. Close. It depicts the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition, for crying out loud. Let’s just call it what it is: it’s torture porn. But it’s torture porn with higher expectations, damn it, and in many ways those expectations are met.
While it could be admitted that the film has certain resemblances and connections to 1970’s Nazi-concentration-camp sexploitation films such as Ilse, She-Wolf of the SS, or certain women-in-prison films, or, as I’ve just learned it’s a thing, other Spanish Inquisition sexploitation films, Maleficarum actually has higher aims, and—mostly—manages to achieve them. Mostly.
What makes many sexploitation films fun to watch (if you’re into that kind of thing)— besides the sheer amount of nudity, the torments, the despoiled innocence—is the camp, or perhaps “campiness” is a better word. An odd, probably cruel humor underlying the endeavor, a wink at the viewer, a shared knowledge that this thing is so over-the-top that it can’t really be taken seriously.
Maleficarum has none of that. No humor at all, really. It’s pretty damn dark. The other thing that sets it apart is that it is closely based on actual historical events. While women were tortured in Nazi concentration camps, to be sure, it’s safe to say that Ilse was not what we would call historically accurate, despite the disclaimer at the end, something along the lines of “We show you this so that it may never happen again”, which really has more to do with the sordid jokiness of the horror than any historical veracity.
While writing Maleficarum, however, Avila took much of the dialogue of the various witnesses’ testimonies directly from the historical record, the official records of the Lima Holy Tribunal, which took place in Peru in the 17th Century. This really happened, although the trial on which this film is mostly based was for only one woman, Maria Francisca Ana de Castro. Avila has created two characters out of one person, each with a part of her name as well as different aspects of the historical woman’s circumstances—all the better to play them off each other and add more tension. The title comes from the Malleus Maleficarum, The Hammer Against Witches, the Catholic Church’s primary manual for rooting out and prosecuting witches, written in Germany in 1486.
The film begins with a visit from the local Church big shot, Father Francisco Verdugo (played with an eerie calm by Beto Lopez), to the large home of Lady Maria Francisca (Mila Joya), a wealthy young woman recently orphaned when her parents mysteriously died in the jungles of Peru. Father Francisco expresses his sympathies, but also asks if Lady Maria intends to follow her parents’ wishes of donating a large part of their landholdings to the Church. Maria is reluctant, and, perhaps unwisely, not especially diplomatic about it. He leaves, incensed, and tells his underling that they will have to find a way to stifle her pride. Meanwhile, Maria’s housekeeper and guardian, Josepha, warns Maria not to mess with the Church, and that she should get rid of the young woman she has taken in, the Lady Mariana De Castro (Hesketh). Mariana is a newly widowed Lutheran, and, therefore, an apostate. Maria refuses.
Mariana exits the house to go shopping, and a group of young women stop her on the street and do not let her pass. They call her a Judaist, a witch. They push her down onto the cobblestones, and Maria appears from nowhere to save her, shoving aside several of the women and helping her friend up. Father Francisco sees this, and has both women arrested and brought to the Office of the Holy Inquisition. And so begins their ordeal.
Made on a miniscule budget, this film achieves a look beyond its means. There are a few small problems typical of low-budget endeavors, particularly with sound, especially in the early scenes before the trial begins—actors are occasionally hard to hear and we are reliant on the subtitles to follow what’s going on. This was also actress Mila Joya’s first acting experience of any kind (and what an introduction to film this must have been!), and while she comports herself well in many scenes, in others her inexperience shows. (It should be mentioned that she has progressed considerably in more recent Pachamama productions.)
But what few shortcomings the film may have in sound production, it makes up for in its visual appearance and atmosphere. It is a beautiful film. This is partly due to the wonderful found sets in which it was filmed—not only the torture chamber where most of the film takes place, but the street shots, and Lady Maria’s magnificent house. The lighting and photography, especially in the dungeon, is masterful. Surrounded by candles, each shot is lovingly filmed, the women’s bodies golden and glistening with sweat as they are put through the most unpleasant torments. The chamber, with its stone walls and low arched ceiling, does not feel like a movie “set”. It is a dark, claustrophobic space that contains and contrasts with the women’s supple, yielding flesh in stunning fashion.
One of the notable, now almost legendary reasons the film does look so good is that Ms. Hesketh, in addition to starring in the film and enduring many an uncomfortable whipping with that long leather flogger, actually fabricated not only all the film’s costumes herself, but all the devices of torment as well. She made that heavy whip, and in the DVD’s commentary discusses at length the decision-making process regarding the weight, heft, and choice of material. More impressively, she also built the wooden Rack that she and Joya are stretched across, as well as the Spanish Horse, the large upright wedge that she straddles in one of her scenes. The pieces look rustic and authentic, and there is, for some reason, an additional thrill in knowing that she herself built the very implements that she suffers upon as both character and actress.
But back to the story. They are brought into the Tribunal and accused. It is pointed out that Lady Mariana is an infidel, a practitioner of “Judaist rites”, and, therefore, most likely a witch. Josepha begs the Tribunal for mercy for Maria, and tells the Inquisitor that she has always been a good girl until she took in the Lutheran. She describes seeing them locked in lesbian embrace (which was true, as we happily see). She accuses Mariana of sorcery, of bewitching Maria.
Both women deny any wrongdoing. They are ordered to the dungeon to reconsider their pleas. Once in the dungeon, the women are forcibly stripped and shackled spread-eagled to a stone wall, and it is then that the reality of their situation sinks in. Until then, both were indignant at the accusations and in a state of denial about the seriousness of their predicament. When Maria is unchained and taken to the center of the chamber, suspended by her bound wrists and flogged (a fine thing to behold, I must say), Mariana breaks down into sobs as she can do nothing but watch. This is finally real, and very, very bad. Their places are then switched, and this is repeated as the women are laid upon the Rack, their wrists and ankles bound, their bodies stretched tight as they gasp for breath (while lovingly filmed, from various angles).
For the rest of the film, these scenes of torture are alternated with the testimonies of witnesses upstairs, in the Tribunal. This is a very effective narrative device, which highlights the absurdity and unfairness of their ordeal. The testimonies are nearly all character assassinations, mostly of Mariana, told by the women who taunted and shoved her in the street and by witnesses to the scuffle. We hear a snippet of deposition, then go back to see one of the naked women crying out in pain as she suffers the consequences of that testimony. The bulk of the film goes back and forth, from increasingly outlandish testimony—“She (Lady Maria) pounced on them like a demon, her eyes glowing a pure red” is an early example—to harsher and harsher enticements to confess.
The mood that is successfully conveyed in these early scenes is one of overwhelming dread. The movie’s score consists mostly of a low-pitched, sustained chord, a suspenseful, hovering hum, alternated with slow, single piano notes of a repeated arpeggio in a minor key, which has a mechanistic, inevitable feel—there is no way of stopping all this. Its minor key also contrasts with the harsh actions onscreen.
The film’s story structure itself is incredibly simple: things go from bad to worse, over and over again. It is relentless in its linearity. There is no roller-coaster of suspense, of hope—no thrill of an attempted escape, no suspected tricks in false promises of acquittal. Their fate was sealed as soon as they were arrested; we watch the results. But there is tension. The primary replacement for suspense is the constant anticipation of what horror will come next, mixed with amazement once we see it—and then we restart the cycle with the next scene.
The testimonies, and the knowledge of their soon-to-follow results, are what makes this film so stomach-tighteningly unfair. We watch the accusing women in the courtroom, smug and innocently shocked at the same time, then the two women in the dark room below, naked and bound and suffering.
And so very naked. And sweaty, and increasingly marked by the whip. There are interesting compromises to 21st Century aesthetics—armpits shaved (and their arms are usually bound above their heads); pubic hair not. Both actresses are quite attractive, yet not unrealistically so, not model-perfect. Why, you might ask, would I write about these women’s attractiveness, when the story is one of human cruelty to other humans?
You are joking, yes? Because while this film is not camp, does not wink at us, Avila is in a sense winking at movies that do wink, at “traditional” sexploitation. This movie is about genuine suffering, of real people, who once died at the hands of the Church and uncaring accusers. And it does care about them, as does the viewer, or it would have no tension and the tension is incredible—but, at the same time, they look pretty damn good, don’t they? It is this mental split of mine, my dread and arousal, that fascinates me.
Because matched with that dread—and I truly do feel for the characters, the two protagonists—there is, damn it, a deep, dark thrill. A feeling deep in the gut, an increase in the heart rate: Oh, no.
Is that wrong, that thrill? Ms. Hesketh in particular suffers exquisitely. She displays a helplessness—she cannot do anything about her torments, she can only endure them—and a sadness in each wail as the whip strikes her that elicits both sympathy and a desire to see more.
She is particularly powerless straddling the Spanish Horse, her legs spread down the sides of the cruel wedge, gasping as the torturer places heavy weights onto her ankles. In interviews, she mentions that she really was naked and weighed down on that thing; she has stated that her aim as an actress is to experience at least some of the suffering that her character is enduring. Her wrists are bound above her, spread wide, and she is whipped with that rather heavy-duty leather flogger. And I can’t stop watching.
The Inquisitors pop in now and then during these scenes and the women, sweaty and welted with streaks of blood from the whip, are suddenly surrounded by men fully dressed in their holy robes and vestments, demanding that the women speak the truth and confess. When they refuse, the torture resumes.
The discrepancy of dress brings out the women’s nakedness even further, and emphasizes the radical difference in power: they have none. It also highlights all sorts of questions of gender and power—within this film, in the Catholic Church, in our own society. Is this film misogynistic, or simply sadistic? Was/is the Catholic Church misogynistic?
As in the witch hunts in Europe and North America—the Salem witch trials, etc.—women were primarily (though not entirely) the accused and prosecuted. And the Catholic Church has never exactly been on the forefront of women’s rights and equality. But one notable feature of this film is that the male witnesses are either sympathetic or neutral to the accused, while the female witnesses—just as in the trials in Salem and other Massachusetts towns around the same time this film takes place—were entirely hostile and accusatory. There’s no sisterhood in this movie—nor was there in the actual trial, nor in Salem. Men can be brutal, but women can be cruel.
It is perhaps best left for another discussion to delve deeper into questions of whether the very structure of the Patriarchy has enabled and encouraged such behavior of women toward each other, or whether women have been able to occasionally manipulate such a structure for their own ends. As for this film, however, anyone who thinks lil’ Miss Hesketh is being exploited should think again—this is largely her show, her approach to film. Her collaborations with Avila push some boundaries, and some buttons. She knows what she’s doing.
Lady Mariana is soon singled out for further torment. The alternations of torture cease; it’s Mariana they are after now. The various witnesses focus on her, with increasingly outlandish accusations. While she is being repeatedly lifted by the wrists via pulleys and lowered onto a mat of sharp steel spikes (an arresting sight, I must admit), the group of young women who had stopped her in the street to bully her now testify that it was she who’d bullied them—via her witchcraft, and through her enchantment of Lady Maria.
Remember, these testimonies are taken directly from the court records. More and more accounts begin with “It is known that” she performs some kind of Satanic ritual or another:
“Francisca, the orphan, and Mariana the Saxon met with other women every Tuesday and Friday. And they went flying through the night, taking the form of ducks while saying the following words: ‘We travel from village to village, with no God or Holy Mary.’ On one such occasion, the White Goat came forth. And they all disappeared with him.”
Did people believe this nonsense? Apparently so. This is no more ridiculous than much of the testimonies used to torture and execute many thousands of women and men from New England to Tierra del Fuego, London and Lisbon to the Urals, for hundreds of years.
Things just get worse and worse for poor Mariana. Not only because she is repeatedly singled out by the witnesses, but because she is a valuable tool to get to what the officials really want: Maria’s money. By forcing Maria to watch her friend and lover be tortured, they hope that she will sign her confession and hand over her land as part of her punishment and absolution.
But Maria obstinately refuses to sign; even spits upon the document as they hold it and the quill pen out for her. Such spiritedness is admirable, but perhaps not wise: Mariana is subjected to more torture.
Things get pretty intense, and go too far for me to consider “hot”. While still atop the wedge of the Spanish Horse, the Grand Inquisitor orders the torturer to look for “the mark of the Devil” by stabbing her repeatedly with a nail-thin stiletto. She passes out from the pain, still hanging by the wrists.
She is later prodded with a red-hot steel poker while vertically stretched and bound spread-eagled with the camera lovingly zoomed in on her breasts and stomach as the steaming rod leaves its mark (with pretty good special effects, I must say).
But unlike the flogging scenes, I did not find these two scenes exciting. Suddenly, it just wasn’t sexy anymore.
And that makes me think. This was my limit; the spot in the film where I lose my aroused squeamishness for simple squeamishness. Flog them while suspended by their wrists? Hell, yeah! Stretch them on the Rack? You bet. Straddle Mariana on a Spanish Horse and flog her even harder? I’ve just watched it again. But how on Earth could anyone want to watch her burned? I certainly don’t. What’s wrong with people? And this is where I encounter my little personal dilemma.
I like to top. But it’s one thing to want to bind and whip a person who wants it too, and has not only expressed their consent, but eagerness to be whipped. That is the mutual exchange of power in BDSM. It satisfies both person’s needs. It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing.
However, if I were to read in the news an account of something resembling what happens in this film—and it still happens all the time, in this horrible world, via repressive governments, creepy predators, roving soldiers in civil wars—I would become angry, enraged, demand justice and punishment for the torturers.
Yet what I most want to do is watch this film again, or at least parts of it.
What the fuck?
Both women are led to the rooftop, where Mariana is tied to a spit and roasted over hot coals. For quite some time she is rotated as she screams, the camera lingering on her slowly spinning body. And damn it, it is luscious to watch.
Maria can no longer stand watching her friend and lover suffer. She finally says “Enough,” and agrees to sign her confession to end all this. She is taken to the courtroom, where she signs a blank document to be filled in by the clergy later.
Returned to the dungeon, Maria’s penance is severe and while she is passed out from the pain, Mariana is raped by the torturer. It is brutal, and not the least bit tantalizing. Unlike the torture scenes, she is not naked, but wearing the simple tunic she wore to her roasting, and the torturer takes her from behind, merely flipping up the back of the tunic.
In an online interview, Hesketh explains the scene by saying that the torturer would inevitably be frustrated, dominating these exposed women but unable to claim that last triumph. He was not, after all, a very nice guy. He would have to relieve his tensions quickly, in a stolen moment alone with her. I’ll buy that explanation, but I also wonder if that would have been one brutality too far. It’s somehow one thing—“okay”—for the camera to maintain an admiring gaze as she’s stripped and whipped, bound and burned, but to do so during an actual rape is somehow over the limit. While I am glad they refrained, it makes you think how odd that really is, doesn’t it?
Mariana is, of course, sentenced to burn at the stake. They are led to some secluded spot in the Peruvian desert. Maria is sentenced to be bound to a cross and to watch Mariana burn; if she survives for three days and can find her way home, she is free.
Mariana burns in her naked, screaming glory. It’s a nice scene; she looks pretty awesome chained to the post. There are some pretty good effects. I have given away many spoilers already, so I will leave the ending a mystery for you. See what you think. I am still undecided about it.
I have to admit all of this makes me question myself, all this yes/no, no/yes as to what I will enjoy on a lurid level and what I won’t. For many viewers, it’s not so complicated: Hesketh and Avila have gained a cult following making movies in which she is tormented, tortured even, and they know their audience. I would guess many if not most of that audience likely have few such compunctions about watching her suffer. Alternately, a great many people who might stumble across this film (or this review) would not find any of it arousing or in any way fun. People have protested, sent Avila and Hesketh hate mail.
But I am one given to constant, often complex self-questioning.
Gilles Deleuze, in his lengthy essay on Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, “Coldness and Cruelty,” posits that true Sadism and Masochism are not, contrary to popular belief, in the least complimentary—that their languages are not even at all complimentary. The masochist uses language to educate their prospective Top as to what they want, draw up contracts, delineate limits. True Sadists seek to abolish these things, to even destroy the personal, to reduce cruelty to a perfected abstraction. The contract between a Top and submissive, whether written or verbally negotiated, is the language of the sub, not the Top. The Top who agrees to abide by these limits may have sadistic tendencies, of course, but is yielding to the wishes of the sub (because, I like to believe, most Tops are decent people.)
A true Sadist not only wants no limits placed upon his desires, he (or she) actually enjoys the lack of consent—would want it no other way. A victim’s suffering is simply not enjoyable if consent or enthusiasm are present.
In most erotica, even “dark erotica” featuring dubious or non-existing consent, the narrative heat is usually with the submissive; most erotic novels are from their points of view. It is usually more thrilling to identify with the “victim”, who might be thrilled at her/his ordeal or initially horrified but usually, through a journey of self-discovery, admits she/he likes it. Of course, if we are so inclined, we can also identify with the Dom/tormentor, and imagine ourselves doing these things to the poor protagonist.
When we identify with the sufferer, we can safely imagine ourselves in such peril, being whipped or humiliated or subjugated, without actually suffering. Such is the wonder of fiction, even harsh sexual fiction.
In Maleficarum, there is no vicarious, naughty thrill in identifying with the protagonists. Unless you find being poked with a red-hot steel rod arousing, which even in masochistic fantasies would be pretty extreme (although being threatened with a red-hot poker might very well be more common, or at least explainable). But no one in real life would actually want that (…would they? I guess there are people around who are into branding, but they are few and far between).
No, what we have in this movie is not an opportunity for masochistic identification, but a portrayal of very unpleasant things happening to two human beings, who happen to be attractive females. If you do empathize with Mariana, put yourself in her place, you are doing so from the point of view of horror—as we do watching horror movies, seeing teenagers sliced up one by one as they go see what’s in the dark basement.
So, without this component, this sexual identification, we are left with several options as to what kind of person enjoys this movie:
- You are a decent person who is horrified by their plight yet wants to see what atrocity happens next—in short, a horror fan;
- You are a Sadist, enjoying Mariana’s ordeal—because it cannot be enjoyed from the masochistic point of view;
- You are caught in between 1 and 2, knowing this is all terrible yet finding these attractive young women under the whip oddly exciting. Like me, you might find some of the sequences arousing, but not all, and we might differ as to where this line is drawn;
- You are caught between 2 and 3: you find much of this arousing, but you know that it’s fiction. Judging from the commenters on her facebook page, it is not unreasonable to assume that the majority of Amy Hesketh fans are male. And while I’m sure there are a few truly sick fucks out there who would actually like to torture someone in real life, I like to believe that the tremendous majority of them would never dream of causing someone actual pain (beyond what they might mutually agree upon, of course).
Which takes us back to fiction and fantasy. If it’s okay to have non-consensual fantasies as the victim, as many people do, is it okay to have them as the torturer or rapist? Why, or why not? How do we account for these things? Does a fantasy of torturing someone equal wanting to do so in real life? If you answer ‘yes’, then does a rape fantasy as the victim equal actually wanting to be raped? I believe that most thinking people would say no.
And what of Sade? People have been reading him for kicks for centuries now. And if you haven’t, let me tell you: he’s not much gentler than what goes on in this film.
So here I am, questioning my motives, my enjoyment of this movie. I certainly have no desire to cause someone pain (beyond what we might agree upon, of course). Many people would simply say “Shut up, enjoy it; admit it (to yourself, at least) that you like this and enjoy the pleasure. That is why it’s called a guilty pleasure.” Many other people I know would say, “What the hell is wrong with you, enjoying this movie at all?”
Just relax, I tell myself. But no, my excitement while watching is directly related—hell, caused by—my inability to relax. It’s a deep, dark thrill, to enjoy this film. Because it’s so fucking wrong, on so many levels. They really suffer, and in not-sexy ways. Even as fiction, it’s too much.
Then there’s an additional complication on top of all this: it’s not quite fiction. This happened. The real Maria Francisca Ana de Castro was tortured and burned, along with many thousands of others during and after the Middle Ages, on false, ridiculous, superstitious charges. The actual event logged in history books was a factor in slowing down the Inquisition’s activities in South America. It was too unfair even for the Catholic Church of Spain, who shut down the Tribunal of Lima, and that’s saying something.
So, I find myself enjoying the terrible treatment of two women who did not deserve it, in a fictional movie based on factual events. What to make of all this?
That it’s still fiction. Sort of. That the pretend suffering of actors onscreen can be enjoyed. (Well, they suffered a bit—but they consented, so even that can be enjoyed with a touch of gleeful sadism.) That even though I am an empathetic person, sympathizing with the suffering of people in real life, I can sit and watch a morally questionable movie and get all hot and bothered by it, and that’s okay. Just don’t tell my parents.
I can also wonder whether this movie is morally questionable, or if I just think too much. Where exactly are the limits to my predilections, my perversions? Somewhere around halfway through this movie, apparently.
I’ve also come to realize something else in the writing of this essay, in considering the nature of exploitation films, and those that might border on exploitation yet do reach higher: I’m the one who’s been topped. Mr. Avila has topped me.
I’m not claiming for an instant that my suffering is comparable to Mariana’s, the historical one nor the one portrayed here. I have consented fully and only my brain hurts. However, in making me think so much about this film, about how and why it works its way into my psyche, about my own decency and morality, Mr. Avila has indeed created something fairly powerful. It is unique: a singular, cruel, self-contained—and glistening!—creation. I will both suffer and thrill at its power over me, until I cry my safe word and push the Stop button, which poor Mariana could never do.
What do I like most about this film? The thrill of knowing it’s there—the DVD on my shelf, the Director’s Cut in my computer. Some days I’ll ignore it. Some days I’ll be working on some project or thinking about something that has nothing to do with this film, and it will pop into my head: I could go watch this. There is a dark thrill in knowing that a perhaps morally wrong, yet so, so satisfying viewing experience awaits me whenever I want.
How should I feel about that?
I don’t know. I’d better go watch it again to decide.