Film Review – The Little Hours
The Little Hours
The randy soap operas contained within Bocaccio’s The Decameron do not introduce new concepts. Women at the mercy of their desires and cravings is a struggle poor men have dealt with since the Garden. What’s really scary is when they conspire towards an inverted type of procreation, channeling that sexual energy towards a sort of communal fecundity. In The Little Hours, writer-director Jeff Baena capitalizes on the outrageousness of the women in several of Bocaccio’s stories, percolating inside the walls of the abbey until an opportunity arises for their frustrations to be vented and experimented with at once. It’s as if Woody Allen remade The Devils from a script by Neil Simon.
If this were forty years ago, The Little Hours would star Lynn Redgrave, Julie Walters, and Judy Davis, all actresses that could and can temper feminine wiles with feverish intensity. In 2017, their successors are Alison Brie as Alessandra, Kate Micucci as Genevra, and Aubrey Plaza as Fernanda – three young nuns at an Italian convent in 1347. Their situations are all different: Alessandra’s family has money and can possibly raise enough of a dowry to get her out and married (if they would just stop making poor business decisions). Fernanda gets away from the cloister as much as possible, exploring the surrounding woods or chasing after a donkey that keeps mysteriously busting out of its confines. Genevra is the most resigned to her station and is desperate for attention and affirmation, rendering her a terrible busybody and tattletale.
A few towns over in Lunigiana, a nobleman (Nick Offerman) presides over his castle and lands with a pretentious and impotent air, warning his annoyed wife Francesca (a hilarious Lauren Weedman) that trouble may arise any minute. Judging from her exasperated expression, he’s been warning this for years as a means to exact her gratitude for the little he gives her. Her only pleasure comes from trysts with a virile young servant named Massetto (Dave Franco) who fears they are dangerously close to being discovered as Francesca doesn’t try much to be discreet. Inevitably, Massetto must escape Lunigiana and hide in the forest, where he is discovered by the drunken priest of the abbey, Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly) on his way to market.
Baena has worked with much of his cast before on films like Joshy (2016) and Life After Beth (2014) and there is an obvious trust in the actors to run with scenes showing the nuns’ competitiveness or reaction to outsiders. Heavily improvised, the dialogue capitalizes on the terrific deadpan expressions of Aubrey Plaza, who can then whip around and curse out unsuspecting gardeners, the facial expressions of Sister Marea (Molly Shannon), who has secrets of her own, and the hilarious reactions of Micucci, who alternates between wanting to be liked and wanting to join in the game. As Alessandra, Brie is high-strung and anxious to better her station, seeing a life of servitude akin to a jail sentence. Fernanda, on the other hand, never lets it hamper her extracurricular activities in the woods with her secular friend, Marta (Jemima Kirke), the bad girl in the leather jacket who smoked in the restroom at school.
Massetto and Marta are the two elements who temper the simmering cauldron of passions shut behind the abbey walls, the former as an object and the latter as an orchestrator. Father Tommasso brings Massetto to the abbey as his last gardener quit in fear and disgust at the nuns’ irreverence and vulgarity, only the young man has to pretend to be deaf and mute. Ironically, this only stokes the ladies’ fire: attractive, accommodating and silent? A perfect stud. Marta encourages Fernanda, the boldest of the group, to heighten her private interludes with Massetto using all the senses – with the young man held at knifepoint, of course. As the women are whipped into a frenzy over their new plaything and command use of the young man at their leisure, even Genevra begins to explore her own sexuality.
While the outlandish actions of the nuns and the buffoonery of the men, including a third-act appearance of Fred Armisen as an unwitting bishop, steer the film towards farce, the very real suppression of female sexuality forms the tense underbelly to all the slapstick and late-night romps. Furthermore, no Catholic farce would be complete without a witches’ coven holding a fertility ritual out in the forest and widespread use of a hallucinogen to pop the cork on all the shenanigans going on in the convent, laying everyone’s propensities and true selves bare. In the end, we recognize the outlets created to survive within this environment, and the tenuous thread between religious and sexual fervor.