There have been wonderful movies about Catholic religious, but at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, filmmakers seem more interested with stories of how nuns are sexually repressed and neurotic, seeking the veil as an escape from unhappy, unfulfilled lives.
First up, “Novitiate.”
Both tonally and stylistically, however, “Novitiate” is a very different string of beads [from ‘Silence’], plunging into unabashed melodrama as tensions, attractions, and flagellations run high at the film’s fictitious Tennessee convent. Only occasionally does a wobbly strain of sensationalism creep into proceedings; Betts’s original screenplay, while not without wit, is conscientious in its theological considerations on what constitutes faith and how overtly it needs to be expressed.
Quite where “Novitiate” itself stands on religion is difficult to determine, even as the film comes down hard on the archaic Catholic rituals it depicts. After all, the landmark reformations of the Second Vatican Council, opened by Pope John XXIII in 1962, also ruled against the extreme self-discipline and assumed spiritual superiority that are still favored at The Sisters of the Blessed Rose. The Roses, as they call themselves, are instructed with unremitting severity by the Reverend Mother Marie St. Claire (Leo), who forbids any line of questioning among her novices and sounds less than deferential to any higher power when she says, “You might consider me the voice of God around here.”
… cinematographer Kat Westergaard keeps finding unexpected pockets of light in the stark, oaky corridors of the convent, at one point filtering it through a starched, golden-white row of wimples. It’s to the credit of the film’s worldview, being more catholic than Catholic, that such an image could support any manner of symbolic reading, or none at all.
And then, on a less serious note, there’s “The Little Hours.”
What for American satirist Jeff Baena (“Life After Beth,” “Joshy”) must have felt like a radically innovative idea — take a medieval piece of literature, such as Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron,” and recreate it with an irreverent modern sensibility — is in fact a strategy that Euro auteurs have been doing for decades. Not that a somewhat overinflated sense of novelty makes Baena’s twisted nuns-gone-wild comedy “The Little Hours” any less entertaining.
Only the most ascetic of filmmakers sets out to create a starchy period piece about naïve maidens pining away in airless old castles. The trouble is that even when such racy directors as Benoit Jacquot and Catherine Breillat attempt to modernize such material, between the subtitles and cultural differences, too much is lost in translation. “The Little Hours” is, then, a medieval convent comedy for the megaplex crowd, one that dispenses with the notion of nuns as prim-and-proper old maids who spend their days praying, and instead treats them as rude-and-repressed young women with raging hormones and a curiosity about all things forbidden.
Instead of adopting European accents or speaking in old-timey English, the nuns come across sounding like a trio of Valley girls dressed in medieval habits, trading gossip and put-downs like jealous high-school students, while using vocabulary such as “boring,” “homosexual” and the F-word, which weren’t coined for several more centuries.
There is a middle ground between sentimental hagiography and sacrilegious satire, in which dramatic, honest, compelling stories of Catholic nuns and sisters can be told.
But this year, it doesn’t seem to be found in Park City.
Image: Courtesy HBO
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