Retro Porn Review – Sylvia

June 7, 2015
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Retro Porn Review - Sylvia

You know porn was mainstream counterculture-approved when Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese — at the peak of their collaborative years — attend your movie premiere. Sylvia happens to have that honor. Of course, it helps that Peter Savage, the film’s writer and director, was also one of the co-writers of the Academy Award-winning Raging Bull — the second time Savage worked with the very successful Marty/Bobby duo. That’s the porno chic crossover world that was the adult cinema of the 70s.

Originally titled A Saint, A Woman, A Devil, this surprisingly talkative grindhouse flick was clearly inspired by the mini-series Sybil, released the previous year, and also based on a young woman whose abused childhood made her develop several personalities to cope with trauma.

You might be thinking “abused childhood” fits right in with porn, but the extent of the psychological baggage that the title character carries is pretty uncommon for the adult industry. The flashbacks to her childhood show her being verbally and physically abused by her mother. A lot. In a fairly horrible editing display, it’s quickly very clear that mother and daughter are never in the same room through all the intense scenes, which in hindsight probably makes us feel better as an audience.

Retro Porn Review - Sylvia

Joanna Bell, a fairly unknown adult performer with only one other credit to her name, embodies the very religious and prudish Sylvia. And the overtly sexual Mary. And the butchy lesbian Tony. And a few other women. While she may not have all the nuances that Sally Field brought to its mainstream counterpart, by porn standards she more than holds her own in a very demanding role.

Sylvia’s fellow sexually-repressed cousin Toby is very concerned about the strange changes she’s witnessing. Multiple personality disorders are sort of common knowledge, but for a traditionally religious girl, it just seems like the devil’s work. The priest route backfires drastically, as “Mary” shows up in time to rape the poor clergyman, so his (very progressive, it should be said) boss suggests psychiatry may be the way to tackle the situation.

The psychiatrist is actually played by Savage himself, who does a solid job in a purposely-heroic role with a lot of lines, a cocky fight scene, and no nudity nor sex for him. Why a therapist would be telling their cousin about everything that transpires in the sessions is hard to understand, but these were different times, so maybe the protocol was different in 1977.

Although Sylvia is well-known to the other two personalities, Sylvia’s not aware of them, which results in an awfully convenient rationalization of her actions that I kind of wish I could pull off every time I fuck up. These are the breaks, though.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EPRNryK2Sis&oref=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DEPRNryK2Sis&has_verified=1

The sex scenes are better lit than a lot of other adult films of the era, and Bell is passionate and highly sex driven — also, apparently a consistent rimming enthusiast. The acting is hardly perfect, but considering the lengthy dialogue, complicated psychological changes and significantly dark themes, they pulled off a valiant and respectful effort.

There are a couple of awkward rape scenes — both male-on-female and female-on-male — that we could have lived without. Also, the poor editing and effects give a ridiculous twist to a movie that — contrary to the norm — clearly takes itself very seriously otherwise.

Could this have been done in less time? No doubt. In fact, it was also released without the sex scenes in a cut that shouldn’t be particularly captivating for anyone. Once you factor the porn in, though, it’s still a movie with fleshed out characters, hot naked girls fucking and a plot that’s good enough to hold your attention for well over an hour and a half. So, what else do you need, really?

Retro Porn Review – Sylvia 2 votes

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