The Little Hours
Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza and Kate Micucci are naughty nuns in oddball literary adaptation
The Little Hours (2017)
Directed by Jeff Baena
Cast: Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Dave Franco, John C. Reilly
What the hell are Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Dave Franco, Kate Micucci, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Fred Armisen, Jemima Kirke, Nick Offerman, Adam Pally, Paul Reiser, Lauren Weedman, Paul Weitz—seemingly half the comedians in Hollywood—doing in an indie film adaptation of Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th century masterpiece of classical Italian prose The Decameron? Short answer: Being funny. Slightly longer answer: I have no idea, really.
The Little Hours—loosely adapted from “day three, tale one” of Boccaccio’s 100-story Arabian Nights/Canterbury Tales-esque collection of novellas—is written and directed by Jeff Baena, who co-wrote I Heart Huckabees with David O. Russell, and then went off to write and direct the zombie rom-com Life After Beth with Aubrey Plaza (from “Parks and Recreation”). Baena and Plaza have been dating since 2011, and the duo continue their collaboration with The Little Hours.
At a convent in rural Italy, circa 1347, a collection of restless young nuns is running wild and crazy. Father Tommasso (Reilly) does little to stop them, and the Mother Superior (Shannon) turns a blind eye to their shenanigans. Our central troublemakers are Alessandra (Brie), Fernanda (Plaza) and Ginerva (Micucci). Alessandra is a depressed romantic stuck in the convent by her merchant father (Reiser) because he’s too broke to pony up for her dowry. Fernanda is an acid-tongued mean girl who prefers paganism to Jesus. And Ginerva is a mousy gossip with a secret lust for lesbianism. Despite their nuns’ habits, the ladies steal sacrificial wine, curse a blue streak and generally terrorize everyone around them.
One day, while taking goods to market, poor, drunken Father Tommasso crosses paths with young Massetto (Franco). The former servant is on the run from his cruel and seriously Guelf-obsessed (look it up) master, Lord Bruno (Offerman)—mostly because he was sleeping with Lord Bruno’s wife (Weedman). Tommasso offers Massetto a job as handyman at the convent (the sisters having chased off the last one). In order to avoid the attentions of the scandalous nuns, however, Massetto will have to pretend to be deaf and mute. The ruse doesn’t last long, of course, before the nuns are doing their best to sate their curiosity and sample the pleasures of the flesh, courtesy of young, virile Massetto.
Right out of the gate, The Little Hours looks serious, straight-faced, professionally shot. But this is no BBC-approved historical drama. It’s thoroughly raucous and more than a bit ribald—starting with the surprisingly contemporary dialogue. The characters speak in a snarky, foul-mouthed, thoroughly modern manner. It’s jarring. It’s also explosively funny. At times, the film approaches the absurdly mocking tone of a Monty Python film (minus the animation and surreal digressions). At other times, it hits heights of depravity that 1953’s Decameron Nights couldn’t touch and that Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1971 The Decameron rather celebrated (in fact, Pasolini adapted the same randy tale in his anthology).
Oddly, Baena sidesteps the original tale’s punchline, crafting a somewhat less cynical story that is still a deadpan sex farce—but allows the characters a bit of depth beyond their carnal urges. It’s not as pointed a satire, but it adds some unexpected heart to the proceedings. Despite all the bad behavior—the sex, the drugs, the alcohol—there’s no actual malice here. In fact, it’s even a little sweet in its moral. Obviously female sexuality isn’t viewed quite so rapaciously as it was in the 1300s. At least not by those outside the Catholic church.
Most of the humor, of course, comes from the dissonant dialogue and the fact that these nuns curse like sailors on leave. But it’s a running joke that holds up surprisingly well. A lot of that is due to the fact that Baena’s hand-picked collection of comic ringers know how to time their F-bombs for maximum impact. Much of the dialogue feels improvised, and many sequences leave viewers wanting more. (Brie and Reiser have a wonderful back-and-forth that deserves a return engagement, Offerman manages to illicit snickers at the mere mention of the word “Guelf,” and Armisen nearly steals the show as a quietly shocked bishop.) Baena’s script doesn’t aim for any particular critique of religion in general or the Catholic church in particular. It’s more a send-up of the absurd idea of sin, the idea that human beings—nuns, priests or otherwise—can actually give up their sins of the flesh. A more in-depth examination of the topic could certainly be put forth, but Baena’s attentions are focused elsewhere—mostly on the fact that cursing, drunken, fornicating nuns are funny as hell. And that’s no sin.