Ii joining a convent was half as exciting as many movies make it sound, surely more women would. On screen, the humble nun has been granted a level of alluring mystique and casual glamor by the movies that doesn’t seem to match real life.
Sisters do it sexually for themselves Benedetta, Paul Verhoeven’s wonderfully warm and deranged arthouse riff on the old nunsploitation genre – now airing on Mubi as part of a mini-season dedicated to this slice of cinema. Mubi’s picks veer toward the classier end of the nunsploitation spectrum (you’ll have to look elsewhere on the internet for, say, Naked nuns with big guns). Among them is the Polish provocation of 1961 Mother Joan of the Angelsa stark and rather powerful take on the often-recycled story of demonic possession at the convent.
It looks positively pious next to BenedettaThe mature, raucous story, based only on theoretical fact, of the scandalous lesbian affair of a 17th century Italian nun with another sister – deceived as she is with fire, snakes and fully made-up nuns. But there are also interesting theological details and conflicts, embodied in Charlotte Rampling’s beautifully dry Mother Superior. (It would make a nice double bill with Ken Russell’s nunnery collapse freakout Devilsif only this were available to stream on any UK platform.)
There is a bit of shared DNA between Benedetta and the lovely saturated colors of Powell and Pressburger black narcissus (BritBox), an exploration of sexual aspirations among the brides of Christ that launched dozens of less shrewd films on the same subject. In 1947, the film came as a jolt to people’s sensibilities – naturally, it was condemned as “an affront to religion” by the Catholic Legion of Decency – and it still retains an edginess that far exceeds the Flatter recent TV remake.
Old Hollywood kept its saner nuns: After overseeing the unseemly exploits of black narcissusDeborah Kerr kept her wimple in God knows, Mr. Allison (Amazon Prime), a charming rom-com of sorts in which Robert Mitchum’s castaway sailor vies with God for the affections of Kerr’s chaste novice – suffice it to say the Legion of Decency approved this time. Stepping away from the girlish chic iconography on which her legacy was built, Audrey Hepburn gave perhaps her richest dramatic performance in The Nun’s Story (Apple TV), a sensitive and engaging investigation of a young woman caught between the isolation of the convent and the dramas of the outside world.
Offered the choice between nun duty and showtune lure and marriage to Christopher Plummer in The sound of music (Disney+), Julie Andrews’ irrepressibly perky Maria didn’t struggle that long. In the ranks of cinema’s least engaged nuns, she’s perhaps second only to Whoopi Goldberg’s fabulous Vegas imposter, Dolores van Cartier, who softens up Maggie Smith’s thin-lipped Mother Superior in sister act (Prime), or the accustomed gangsters of Eric Idle and Robbie Coltrane in nuns on the run (Apple TV) – The early ’90s were a surprisingly successful time for the convent criminal hideout subgenre.
More recently, John Patrick star Shanley Doubt (2008; Prime) attempted to restore some respectability to Hollywood covens, although Meryl Streep’s gorgon-like reverend mother is essentially a high-flying creation. I found more nuance and power in Melissa Leo’s comparable portrayal of a cruelly conservative abbess struggling against new 1960s Catholic patterns in Maggie Betts’ superb, underseen Novitiate (2017; Premium).
But it’s world cinema that has given us some of cinema’s toughest nun studies, from Luis Buñuel’s visceral heartbreak Viridiana (1961; Filmbox), with its young novice torn from his vocation by family violence, to the rigorous and scabrous criticism of the Romanian director Cristian Mungiu Beyond the hills (2012; BFI Player), which pits the faith and desire of young women against the ruthless Eastern Orthodox patriarchy. By the time you get to Innocents (Chile), Luxembourg director Anne Fontaine’s quietly poignant 2016 tale of Polish Catholic nuns being raped by World War II Soviet soldiers and suffering the consequences, the nun’s life doesn’t seem so veiled by the movies after all.
Also new to streaming this week
The unbearable weight of massive talent (Lionsgate) Essentially extreme fan service work for the cult of Nicolas Cage, this heavily meta-Hollywood satire stars the quirky actor as himself, entangled in a CIA mission that effectively forces him to play him -same. It’s a clever idea, with Cage a great sport, even if the referential banter of it all can’t avoid smugness.
Alone (Mubi) This bittersweet South Korean gem popped up on the festival circuit last year, but didn’t get the attention it deserved. A humanly observed, sometimes comically piercing character study of an introverted call center worker gradually opening up her lonely, carefully nurtured life, it promises great things from debut writer-director Hong Sung-eun.
Ground Meat Operation (Warner Bros) Well-made and well-acted in a comfortably laid-back British way, director John Madden’s adaptation of Ben Macintyre’s tale of the title’s famously outlandish WWII misinformation mission is one of those war movies that rarely leave the strategy room. It’s gripping enough, though the story’s wacky potential, now tapped into a London musical, remains intact here.
science fiction july (All 4) Film4’s month-long sci-fi film festival can be consumed at your own pace on the free All 4 platform, with over 50 selections spanning the gamut of star-studded blockbusters (Ad Astra, Minority report) to the favorites of the authors (Under the skin, Scanners) to relatively low-key discoveries such as American independent director Noah Hutton’s fantastic critique of the gig economy Lapse.