Either the ne plus ultra of Ken Russell's "passionate" mania, or a vile piece of shit, depending on how one feels toward the gonzo hellion. I take the vile piece of shit. In his monotonously febrile Dark Ages grotesquerie-a-thon, Russell thumbs through the sources (Aldous Huxley's treatise of gruesome religious hysteria in medieval times, The Devils of Loudun, as well as John Whiting's play), leeches off meaning and conflates hollow shocks with rancid widescreen idiocy. The setting is 1634 France, but Russell gives the noxiously campy game away right off the bat by introducing the epicene monarch (Graham Armitage as a drag-queen Louis XIII) emerging out of Botticelli's shell decked out in nut-hugging briefs. Since the king is busy playing target-practice with Protestant prisoners fed into feathery drag, the malevolent duties fall to Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Logue), who zeroes in on pulverizing the walls of Loudun, the last obstacle to his domination of the country. Carnal but principled Father Grandier (Oliver Reed) stands in the way, so the Church needs an excuse to cry blasphemy and muscle in with the Inquisition paraphernalia -- a panting accusation from loony, lust-struck Mother Superior Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave) will do just fine. It is no surprise that the film needs to spell out Grandier's fears, doubts, and the political implications of his martyrdom -- because spirituality or faith mean nothing to Russell, unlike Dreyer, there's no horror in witnessing their degradation. Shorn of resonance, the director cranks up the titillation level to 11, with atrocities introduced at roughly two-minute intervals: cartloads of pestilent corpses, mass exorcism (presided over by shaggy Michael Gothard, tinted John Lennon glasses and all), naked nuns sticking out their tongues, orgies in convents, bodies pierced, smashed, and burned to a crisp in billboard close-ups. Jesus Franco's honest sleaze is so much more liberating than Russell's gloating daring -- other than Derek Jarman's arresting sets, the film needs not exist. With Dudley Sutton, Max Adrian, Gemma Jones, and Murray Melvin.
--- Fernando F. Croce