Pop Theology is pleased to welcome new contributor Kelvin Martinez. He reviews the new religious comedy, The Little Hours, which opens this weekend. Read on.
“While farmers generally allow one rooster for ten hens, ten men are scarcely sufficient to service one woman.” -Giovanni Boccaccio
In The Little Hours, writer and director Jeff Baena examines a cloister of conspicuously modern 14th century nuns played by Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, and Kate Micucci. Uttering poetic phrases like, “You’re a piece of shit, you piece of shit!” the protagonists can seem more like rambunctious and repressed teenagers burdened by life in the convent than holy devoted sisters. These stifled heroines see a chance to explore their worldly desires when a handsome servant repenting of his sins, played by Dave Franco, agrees to become the cloister’s groundskeeper to hide from his past. The film is supported by hilarious and largely improvised performances from Molly Shannon, John C. Reilly, and Fred Armisen as church leaders struggling to keep order in the convent.
Beneath a thin veil of traditional garb and a rural European setting, The Little Hours is a string of anachronistic blasphemy and carnal hijinks aspiring to conjure the spirit of Giovanni Boccaccio’s racy tales in The Decameron. When I sat down with the cast, Baena recalled when he was first inspired by the book in a history class during film school, “I wasn’t expecting something as funny and bawdy coming from source material that is almost 700 years old. So when I read it, it read to me as something so human and highlighted just how similar we are to these people, even though the context is completely different.” The film is Baena’s attempt to bridge the gap between Boccaccio’s time and our present, but more specifically the film humorously explores the link between repression and fascination with the taboo.
Some traditional viewers might dismiss Baena’s absurdist depictions of medieval nuns as lewd and gratuitous (the marketing for the film reveled in the The Catholic League’s review of the movie as “pure trash”), but the sanctimony (a sin I consider worse than sacrilege) will likely ignore the sordid history of how some medieval nuns were enlisted. During the Middle Ages families might send their daughters to become nuns in order to avoid paying their dowries, to increase their chances of receiving an education, or perhaps because their prospects were considered limited on the marriage market. Many of these women were forced into convents against their will. Boccaccio, and Baena alike, comically exploit the kind of scandal that can escalate when faith is transmitted by force.
Boccaccio, who was a devout Catholic, focused his criticism on the hypocrisy in the church’s contradicting penchants for austerity and excess, but The Little Hours is more motivated by the gender politics of cultural expectation. For Plaza, whose character motivates most of the plot in the movie, the setting holds the crux of the film. She explains, “That’s what the movie is about, that time period when women were sent to convents for political reasons or financial reasons and not religious reasons[…]. It’s all about them not being able to behave how they want to.”
The film uses its bleak setting to drop the viewer into a world with innate assumptions. The cloister naturally invokes the ideals of chastity, asceticism, and decorum, but the the criticism of the satire is less focused on rebuking sincere piety and more concerned with questioning more puritanical notions of obligated self-denial. The story contrasts the ascetic demands of the cloister with the sisters’ increasing, and sometimes absurd, exploration of freedom. The demand for austerity is represented by Bishop Bartolemo, a sort of antagonist played by Armisen, when he chastises the women, “If you love this world so much, then why don’t you stay in it!?” In some ways this line is the irony-drenched thesis of the film. The women are trying to understand and discover companionship, love, and enjoyment — those things that Boccaccio’s early humanism might defend as what makes life worth living.
For a film whose characters shine when the improvisations are at their most vulgar and obscene, the film is surprisingly nuanced in its criticism. It forgoes easy digs at faith to instead focus on the common and more personal plight of repression and dissatisfaction under the weight of what is culturally enforced. Baena added, “I like the idea that you have these expectations for who these people are, you assume what their interior lives are, but ultimately you realize it’s more relatable and more similar to what we would be doing if we were in those positions.”
The film is clearly a skeptical work — you will be hard pressed to find a spotless conscience among even the most virtuous characters. However, at least part of the film’s charm is that Baena’s satirical jabs are never directly aimed at faith and, in some regard, hardly at the church itself. I asked Baena if he hoped his film had a specific challenge to religious communities. His response: “This is not an attack on religion, this is an adaptation of a book that to some extent was satirizing religion, but it was more satirizing culture and people and instead of finding the faults in a church — which anyone can do — I think it’s finding the richness of what life is. That is more interesting to me.”