Jeff Baena has taken as his inspiration Bocaccio’s Decameron for his sly gem of a film about female frustration and empowerment, THE LITTLE HOURS. That 14th-century book is full of bawdy tales of people from all stratas of society behaving badly, and so they do in this film set very specifically in 1347. Like the Decameron, there is a playfulness, mostly, to the wanton goings-on, and, at heart, a very sweet sensibility about people forced into roles that they don’t want making the best of a frustrating situation.
No one is more frustrated than the nuns at a small rural convent in Tuscany. Led by a Mother Superior (Molly Shannon) barely treading water as their supervisor, and watched over by a tippling priest (John C. Reilly), who faces the quandary of borrowed confessions and a faulty sense of direction, the nuns spew vitriol and profanities with wild abandon as a way of relieving their tedium and unhappiness. When they are not sniping at, or tattling on, one another as a way of venting their spleen, they are hurling abuse at their resident peasant, Lurco (Paul Weitz). When Luca quits in disgust, not because he’s had his turnips lobbed at him, or because of the daily comparisons by the sisters to the fertilizer he’s used to nourish them, but rather because Sister Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza) called him a Jew, the priest is distraught. He then thinks that God has sent him a miracle in the form of Massetto (Dave Franco), a limber and good-hearted young man who is too handsome for his own good. On the run from his Guelph-hating master (Nick Offerman), whose lusty wife (Lauren Weedman) continually thrusts herself upon him, Massetto, too, believes that his arrival at the convent as Lurco’s replacement is a miracle. The refuge, however, proves problematical, as Massetto’s good looks, and cover story as a deaf-mute, prove to be an all-too carnal temptation to the younger nuns eager to drop their vows ad their habits in order to take advantage of what might just be another kind of miracle.
Baena suffuses his story with Boacaccian earthiness. The vernacular may be millennial, but the spirit is authentically Italian Renaissance. If the nuns come across as co-eds breaking curfew, it’s not entirely anachronistic, considering the transcripts of proceedings against nuns and priests of the time, and the language of the Decameron itself. Yet they are oddly relatable, stuck in dead-end jobs for which they have no calling. Why wouldn’t they take advantage of a handsome swain in their midst? Even the straying wife, forced to listen to her husband’s endless and graphic descriptions of the carnage wrought by the Guelphs, can hardly be faulted for wanting to stick it to said husband by getting, ahem, stuck by someone else.
Plaza, with her ironic ennui, is the ringleader, endlessly mocking her sisters with a deadpan delivery that fearlessly and fascinatingly malevolent. She has perfected a subtlety of delivery and implied violence that keeps this from becoming a one-note performance. Her foils are the blissfully oblivious Sister Alessandra (Alison Brie), a delicate flower whose dreams of matrimony are thwarted by her father’s inability to put together a dowry; Sister Ginerva (Kate Micucci), a mousey snitch with self-esteem issues; and the priggish sanctimony visiting Bishop (Fred Armisen) with no self-esteem issues whatsoever. In keeping with her role as convent troublemaker, Sister Fernanda’s only pal is Marta (Jemima Kirke), who regularly sneaks into the convent to party and otherwise cause a ruckus. In the pivotal role of the catalyst, Franco’s innocence does an excellent job of standing in for we in the audience, his face reflecting our reactions as we are startled and delighted by the story’s developments that are as bold as the sisters as they take full advantage of their plaything
THE LITTLE HOURS is a rowdy romp told with an astute sense of character and a fine sense of restraint. The tone is as deadpan as Plaza’s demeanor, but just as rich, in a script that bubbles with wit as well as profanity.