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Sundance Film Review: ‘The Little Hours’

Variety logo Variety 1/20/2017 Peter Debruge
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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.

It’s a strategy distinguished by an unapologetically raunchy comedic sensibility combined with the casting of a handful of hilarious TV actresses — Alison Brie (“Community”), Aubrey Plaza (“Parks and Recreation”), and Kate Micucci (“Scrubs,” “Raising Hope”) — as oversexed sisters. 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.

While studying film at NYU, Baena found himself dabbling in courses about sexual transgression in the Middle Ages — enough that he wound up with a minor in Medieval and Renaissance Studies, which is finally being put to good use. Among the lessons learned was the fact that many nuns were social outcasts or sexual misfits — divorcées, unwed mothers, or unmarriageable daughters — entrusted to the church’s care, and as such, that gives him license to treat them like contemporary teenagers.

Sister Alessandra is the spoiled brat, stuck in the convent by an otherwise wealthy dad (Paul Reiser) who can’t afford to pay her dowry. Sister Ginerva is the busybody, constantly sticking her nose in other people’s business, as if to distract from certain unnatural temptations. And Sister Fernanda is the party gal, sneaking off into the woods to commune with the wild, witchy women who dwell there (overseen by “Girls” rebel Jemima Kirke). Meanwhile, totally overwhelmed trying to deal with their hysterical young charges are the always-soused Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly) and beatific Sister Marea (Molly Shannon), who are having trouble respecting their own vows of chastity.

Meanwhile, in nearby Lunigiana — actually Malaspina Castle, its high walls reminiscent of the French fortress in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” — an idle lady of wealth and title (Lauren Weedman) amuses herself with the studly servant Masseto (Dave Franco) as a bored Beverly Hills housewife might. When this shameful cuckolding is revealed, however, her oafish husband (Nick Offerman, looking deliberately silly in dark beard and copper curls) chases Masseto from his land — and into the sanctuary of Tommasso’s chapel, where he earns his keep as a handyman.

Mistaking Masseto for a deaf-mute, the young nuns over-share their secrets, hatching various schemes to seduce the strapping newcomer. Though Franco clearly shares older brother James’ leonine smile and pan-sexual magnetism, his character is a variation on the randy farmhand Joe Dallesdandro played in Andy Warhol’s “Blood for Dracula” — a stock character commonly seen in Euro sexploitation movies, a tradition greatly invigorated by Italian poet-turned-helmer Pier Paolo Pasolini’s own hot-blooded take on “The Decameron” back in 1971.

Baena doesn’t borrow much from Boccaccio, other than the general setting, though his riff on the 14th-century author’s bawdy tales is more technically polished than equivalent Euro productions, even if the throwaway jokes hardly seem to merit such care (as evidenced by the way the story just peters out, rather than ending properly). Whether shooting sunlit Italian countrysides or campfire-lit pagan fertility rituals, cinematographer Quyen Tran elevates the joke with her splendid widescreen compositions. Since the characters are constantly hiding from or spying on one another, the film’s visual style follows suit, giving audiences the sense that they are peeping into a forbidden world.

Such irreverence extends to the soundtrack as well, with its tongue-in-cheek collection of choral pieces. Arrangements by La Reverdie and the King’s Singers lend atmosphere to the film, even as they seem hilariously, even blasphemously incongruous with the raunchy shenanigans on offer — as in a spontaneous a cappella number that interrupts the nuns’ bi-curious makeout session.

Though it all takes place in a religious context, Baena doesn’t pay those beliefs much mind, other than to slyly suggest how the church itself was put in place to repress the natural desires of its congretation. When Fred Arminsen shows up in bishop garb, his appearance is a punchline unto itself, and it’s no easier to maintain a straight face as he condemns these heathens for such peccadilloes as “living in pleasure” and “loving the world.” If that’s a season, then we’re all doomed.

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