Writer: Ivo Gazzarrini
Producer: Ivan Zuccon
Cast: Tiffany Shepis, Allan McKenna, Caroline De Cristofaro
Year of release: 2007
Reviewed from: screener DVD
It’s fair to say that Ivan Zuccon is one of my favourite film-makers. This is his fifth feature and I have not yet seen one that I have rated less than A-. One day he may trip up and make a duff film, but it hasn’t happened yet because NyMpha is another great movie.
If you have seen previous Zuccon pictures, you’ll have some idea what to expect. A principal location in an old building where the paint is flaking and the plaster is crumbling; carefully composed lighting which makes the shadows as important within the mise-en-scene as the walls they fall across; time periods or realities which flow into one another, bringing together characters who are worlds apart; and a heavy dose of Catholic iconography. NyMpha is so drenched in Catholic guilt that it made me want to confess - and I’m an Anglican agnostic.
Although the cast includes some of Ivan’s regular repertory company, this is the first Zuccon film with an international star (it also has international funding with some of the budget coming from Epix Media in Germany). I related in my review of The Darkness Beyond how it was through Tiffany Shepis that I first met Ivan at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival. Since then, Shepis has made more than 30 films, almost all of them indie horrors. She was in a biopic of Ted Bundy, the Lance Henriksen-starring bigfoot picture Abominable, Donald Farmer’s Dorm of the Dead, a sci-fi short called Man vs Woman that looks like the best thing ever made - and seven films for Rolfe Kanefsky (which is ironic because it was that meeting with Tiffany which required me to leave a screening of Rolfe’s Midnight 5 early and to this day I don’t know how it ends).
What it boils down to is this: she has credibility. There are some actresses who will appear in pretty much anything, basically riffing on themselves (or rather, their horror movie convention personas) and who add nothing to a project except the most limited amount of name value imaginable. But Tiffany Shepis in a cast list suggests that there’s something about the film that makes it a cut above the rest. NyMpha is, I believe, Tiffany’s first European movie since Shampoo Horns, a Spanish arthouse flick that she made back near the start of her career. I suspect - and hope - that this film will seriously enhance the professional standing and critical appreciation of both Tiffany and Ivan.
Getting down to the specifics of plot, Shepis plays Sarah, an American initiate who arrives at a creepy Italian convent ruled by a stern Mother Superior (Alessandra Guerzoni, a familiar face on Chilean TV, apparently). For most of the film, the impression given is that there are only two nuns in the convent (Caterina Zanca, who was in The Darkness Beyond and Ivan's short film Degenerazione, plays the other) but the final scenes show us eight or nine so the others are probably off praying for most of the time.
Relieving Sarah’s agonising pain is a connection she establishes across the years with Ninfa, a former inhabitant of the house before it became a convent. Sarah hears and sees episodes from Ninfa’s life from her birth and childhood (the little moppet who plays her is Zuccon’s own daughter) to her married life. Netherlands-based Italian actress/model Caroline De Cristofaro plays the adult Ninfa and does a magnificent job, opposite a typically strong performance by Michael Segal (The Darkness Beyond, Unknown Beyond, The Shunned House) as her husband Marco. But the dominant man in Ninfa’s life is her grandfather Geremia, played by British actor Allan McKenna whose previous screen roles include an executioner in a Discovery Channel programme about the Tower of London, a Victorian doctor in Michael Winterbottom’s Jude and Lord Salisbury in a Japanese TV show about Jack the Ripper.
Geremia is on the one hand a kindly, doting grandfather, raising Ninfa single-handed after her mother (also played by Alessandra Guerzoni) dies very messily in childbirth. On the other hand, he is a religiously obsessed psychopath who imprisons in the attic (which may or may not already have an inhabitant) anyone who crosses his path, including his neighbour (Federico D’Anneo) and the local doctor (Franceso Primavera, who was in another recent Italian horror, Maurizio Gambini’s Weekend). Geremia’s influence hangs heavy on Ninfa and permeates the bricks and mortar of the house-turned-convent; through the building the memories of Ninfa and Geremia (and Marco) affect Sarah, the shared suffering of the two women bringing them together (literally, in one scene).
An intense, powerful, sometimes beautiful horror film, NyMpha pulls no punches in either the physical or psychological horror. Shepis is superb, bringing a suffering and a humanity to a character about whose background we know virtually nothing. She does get naked within the first ten minutes, but in a decidedly non-erotic way, although there is a lesbian scene later on which is surprisingly tasteful and sensual (and certainly not gratuitous). NyMpha confirms what many of us have long known: that Tiffany Shepis, given a great role that she can really get her teeth into, is a terrific actress.
The rest of the cast aquit themselves too, the weak point being McKenna who sadly doesn’t give Geremia the intensity that the character deserves. Perhaps he is trying to play the old man as a frighteningly calm psychopath but he comes across in some scenes as flat, rather than level (it's a subtle distinction but an important one). That’s a shame but it’s only a minor criticism of what is otherwise a thoroughly solid production.
Ivan shot his first two features in Italian, his third in English and his most recent, Bad Brains, in Italian again. For NyMpha he has used both languages. Conversations between Sarah and the Mother Superior are in English; Geremia, Ninfa and Marco also speak English. But other scenes and characters are in subtitled Italian. This is a laudable choice which makes the film accessible to English-speaking audiences without losing its distinctively Italian flavour.
As usual, Ivan did his own cinematography and editing, with his regular collaborator Massimo Storari providing the visual effects which are impressive without overwhelming the story or characters. Other Zuccon regulars behind the camera include executive producer/set designer Valerio Zuccon, costume designer Donatella Ravagnini and First AD Eugenia Serravalli. Singling out any individual for praise would be unfair because everyone has done marvellous work and the combination of their efforts is greater than the sum of its parts. Another international aspect of the film is the score by Richard Band (Troll, Puppet Master, Prehysteria).
The screenplay, which is complex but not difficult to follow, was written by horror author Ivo Gazzarrini. He also wrote Bad Brains and Colour from the Dark, the Lovecraft adaptation which Zuccon and Shepis were planning to make after Brains but sidelined in favour of this movie. The origins of NyMpha however predate Zuccon's collaboration with Gazzarrini, going back to his short film The Last Supper and two unfilmed scripts, The Cross and New Order.
Which really just leaves one question: what does the title mean? Ivan says it's just the Latin form of the Greek 'nymph' but there's a great deal more to it than that. Apart from the phonetic similarity to ‘Ninfa’, this would seem to be an allusion to an early Christian martyr. Here’s what I found through a little Googling:
The word has two other meanings, one sexual (either of the two labia minora, near the vulva) and one entomological (an alternative term for a butterfly’s chrysalis). Either of these could be seen as obliquely relevant to this story. As for the oddly placed capital M - that’s something we’ll have to ask Ivan about.
I thought Nympha was wonderful. It’s Zuccon’s most thoughtful and mature film to date; the violence is limited and controlled, the characters are fascinating and fully rounded, the oppressive air of religious fervour is cloying and grim. Powerful, powerful stuff.
MJS rating: A