“The Little Hours” is a comedy by writer/director Jeff Baena that premiered in January at Sundance. It’s based on a couple of novellas from Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th century The Decameron. He uses what we now call the “frame story” formula; the stories are set during the Black Death, when seven young women and three young men flee the plague and find shelter in a castle for two weeks and tell stories to keep themselves amused. The stories are varied: there are practical jokes and comedy, raunchy and erotic tales and tragedies.
Baena, however, chooses to tell the story of three would-be young nuns, Alesandra (Alison Brie), Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza), Genevra (Kate Micucci), who are led by the mother superior Sister Marea (Molly Shannon) and shepherded by the chaplain, Fr. Tomasso (John C. Reilly). None of them belong in the convent or priesthood. The young nuns are intrigued by a handyman, Massetto (Dave Franco) and pursue him. When they are caught in flagrante delicto, poor Massetto is imprisoned. Fr. Tomasso and Sister Marea are getting it on, though we don’t see anything. The three nuns also take part in an orgy at a gathering of lesbian witches. Finally, each one is judged by the naive bishop Bartolomeo (Fred Armisen) and given penances that have little chance of leading anyone to actual repentance or reform.
As I told a reporter from the Religion News Service, watching this was like seeing a medieval mash-up of “The Trouble with Angels” and “The Sound of Music” — the characters all thrown together without their clothes on (or impatient to take them off). Stereotypes always have some basis in reality, and Boccaccio must have been familiar with medieval repressed nuns and misplaced priests, rampant sexuality, lesbianism and every other capital sin (and some minor ones) — because they are in his book, and Baena found them. The characters talk as if they were cast members of a half-hour prime-time sitcom set in really old Italy with no attempt at historical representation.
I will admit I laughed in some places of this elegant farce that is sure to offend people with Catholic or religious sensibilities. The nuns drop the f-bomb frequently in the beginning, and though that word would not come to be used for centuries, Italian dialects included some salty language referring the body parts and functions, as most languages do. Shakespeare was no linguistic or literary saint either; we just don’t understand his vocabulary. Copies of The Decameron circulated long before the printing press and the Index of Forbidden Books — but it made its way there eventually.
After such a bawdy and crude romp of a film without an ending, Fr. Tomasso says one true thing when he escapes from the monastery where he was sent to repent after being expelled from the priesthood. He meets Sister Marea on her way out of the convent pulling the donkey (all the nuns used the donkey as an excuse to get out of the convent, saying it has “escaped”). He tells her the monastery was so boring; all they did was pray. “And that’s important, but. …”
The National Legion of Decency gave a 1953 version of Boccaccio’s work, Decameron Nights a “B” rating for “light treatment of marriage; suggestive sequences; tends to condone immoral actions.” Those censors will spin in their graves if they see this one. I couldn’t find the USCCB’s Office for Film and Broadcast review for Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1971 version of “The Decameron” (with music by Ennio Morricone), but I can only imagine it was found morally objectionable for all, given that he told even more stories and ridiculed the Catholic Church extensively according to reviews.
I hope Baena didn’t make the film to offend, but it will. There is really nothing to recommend it content or story-wise. It’s a smart/stupid movie, but it’s practically porn. What does the movie mean? That the Catholic Church is fun to ridicule and that it represses human needs and sexual desires. Should you go see it? If you do, just remember. I warned you.
[Sr. Rose Pacatte, a member of the Daughters of St. Paul, is the director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles.]