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In France of the 1630s, King Louis XIII, a debauched transvestite, makes a pact with Catholic Cardinal Richelieu to merge church and state, thus destroying the Protestant Huguenots and solidifying the power of both leaders. In the town of Loudon, meanwhile, the beloved governor dies of the plague, leaving the lusty head priest, Father Urbain Grandier, in charge of the town, which has a reputation for religious tolerance. As Grandier leads the funeral march, the young nuns of the town's confined Ursuline order lasciviously watch the handsome man. They are interrupted by the Reverend Mother, Sister Jeanne, a severely repressed hunchback who secretly loves Grandier, although she has never met him. Upon spotting him, she falls into a craven fantasy in which she attempts to make love to him, but is mocked because of her disability. Grandier, despite his vows of chastity, regularly sleeps with his enamored parishioners, but upon hearing that his latest conquest, Philippe, is pregnant, he spurns her, advising her to bear her cross with Christian fortitude. As the bodies of plague victims pile up in the town, Grandier is called to the bedside of a woman who has been barbarically "treated" by physicians with hornets and leeches. Grandier throws out the specious doctors, then comforts the now dead woman's daughter, Madeleine. Soon after, Phillipe's father, M. Trincant, arrives in a fury, but Grandier dismisses him, even after Trincant's cousin, Father Mignon, chastises the priest. When Madeleine approaches Jeanne to ask her about a vocation in the order, Jeanne accuses her of hiding lechery with an innocent look and informs her that most of the nuns were "called" only by a need for a place to live, rather than by a love of Christ. Madeleine turns to Grandier, who assures her that she can do more good outside the cloister. At confession, Madeleine admits her love for Grandier, who invites her to meet him later, but then, touched by her innocence, rebuffs her. Later, Jeanne has another fantasy in which she prays before the crucified Christ, who transforms into Grandier and climbs off the cross to embrace her. Grandier and Madeleine continue to discuss the possibility of having an affair, and he soon convinces her that the Bible does not forbid priests from marrying, and that men must have an outlet for their worldly passions. Meanwhile, Richelieu has convinced the king to send his agent, Baron de Laubardemont, to tear down Loudon's fortifications as a way of disabling its independence. When Grandier sees what is happening, he defies Laubardemont, showing him a contract between the late governor and the king ensuring the town's safety. To the townsmen's ovation, Grandier exhorts them to remain strong and to rebel against an authoritarian regime in order to protect religious freedoms. As Jeanne writes to Grandier to ask him to be their new father confessor, the priest and Madeleine marry. Although the ceremony is secret, word soon spreads, and upon hearing it, Jeanne flagellates herself with spikes. While Laubardemont and Richelieu plot Grandier's defeat, Jeanne learns that Grandier has named Mignon as the order's father confessor, and in revenge, accuses Grandier of seducing her in her dreams. Mignon brings this information to Laubardemont, and along with Trincant's accusations and the physicians' reports that Grandier is married, the baron plans to destroy the priest. He hires a "professional witch hunter," Father Barre, to investigate Jeanne. The inquiry is made public, and the townspeople laugh as the nun, now at great personal risk, elaborates how Grandier, an agent of the devil, lustfully took her. Although she might easily be dismissed as mad, Barre is convinced that she is possessed by Satan, and devises various agonizing techniques to flush the demon from her body. Weakened by the procedures, Jeanne continues to insist that Grandier is her tormenter. Grandier is soon called before the king to defend himself, and sure that Jeanne is merely a sexually repressed madwoman, he bids Madeleine goodbye with confidence. While he is gone, Laubardemont rounds up the other nuns in a pit in the forest and accuses them of treason, crimes against God and unrepentant heresy. To escape a sentence of death, all the nuns agree to Barre's statement that they, too, have been possessed by the devil through Grandier. Barre and the doctors perform horrific "exorcisms" on the nuns while the public watches with glee. Louis hears about the festivities and arrives to watch, warning his young lover not to touch the naked, riotous nuns. The king offers a vial of Jesus' blood to cleanse the afflicted, but as soon as Barre ecstatically "heals" the women with the vial, the king reveals it is empty and leaves, laughing. Meanwhile, Grandier writes to Madeleine to assure her that the court remains sympathetic to his cause. On his trip back to Loudon, he feels a renewed sense of purpose to protect and strengthen his flock against oppression, writing to Madeleine that he has been a bad man, but now is good. Upon returning, he discovers the nunnery turned into a "circus" and denounces Laubardemont and Barre for perverting the innocence of both the nuns and the public. As Jeanne raves about Grandier's various offenses, he denies the charges vehemently and gently cautions the nun not to damn her soul. Laubardemont immediately has him arrested for heresy, then tortures Grandier and the nuns to force them to sign confessions. Although Grandier remains steadfast, Madeleine is imprisoned and broken, and Jeanne tries to hang herself. Once rescued, she admits to Mignon that she lied, but Barre asserts it is only the devil speaking through her. A trial is held, at which Laubardemont brings evidence of Grandier's treatise against celibacy, shows the women's confessions and provides proof that Grandier married Madeleine. Although Grandier eloquently defends himself, denouncing Laubardemont's prosecution as a political experiment to destroy the city, he is sentenced to be tortured and burned alive for his participation in devilry, obscenity and sacrilege. Grandier declares: "I am innocent and I am afraid, but I hope my suffering will atone for my vain life." Laubardemont subjects the priest to brutal tortures to force him to confess to his alleged crimes, but Grandier does not back down. Grandier crawls to the pyre and asks God's forgiveness for his tormenters while the townspeople celebrate as he is tied up, chanting "kill him." Seeing Grandier writhing in agony, Mignon realizes that an innocent man is being put to death and prays fervently. As soon as Grandier dies, the town's fortifications are detonated. Later, Laubardemont informs Jeanne that she is no longer possessed and soon, with the town dead, she will be left in oblivion. As Laubardemont hands Jeanne a charred bone from the pyre as a souvenir, Madeleine, released from jail, silently walks over the fire site, through the blasted walls, and out of Loudon.