“The Little Hours” has pissed off Catholics in a big way. The Catholic group America Needs Fatima recently launched an online petition opposing Jeff Baena’s comedy about three foul-mouthed, sexually liberated nuns played by Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, and Kate Micucci. Set in Italy in 1347, the film follows the nuns as their world is disrupted by a young servant (Dave Franco) who takes refuge at their convent after escaping from his master. Fred Armisen, Molly Shannon and John C. Reilly co-star in the film, which premiered in the 2017 Sundance Film Festival’s Midnight section.
Last month, America Needs Fatima’s executive director sent a letter to “The Little Hours” distributor Gunpowder & Sky on behalf of the petition’s more than 31,000 signatories saying the film “wrongly features priests and nuns taking part in immoral acts and using foul language.” A separate petition organized by the website Return to Order attracted more than 20,000 signatures “urging Gunpowder & Sky to pull this offensive film,” again citing the behavior of the movie’s characters, including an “alcoholic and impure priest who sins with the Mother Superior.” Return to Order is a “special campaign” of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, “an organization of lay Catholic Americans concerned about the moral crisis shaking the remnants of Christian civilization.”
Neither petition mentions the fact that “The Little Hours” is based on “The Decameron,” the 14th-century collection of novellas by Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio. While Baena’s film is a comedy that’s both raunchy and crude at times, the movie embraces its own silliness so wholeheartedly that it’s hard to view the film as any kind of attack on Catholicism or religion. In an interview with IndieWire, Baena was quick to point out that all of the controversial content in the movie is actually rooted in history.
Gunpowder & Sky
“The notion that nuns were swearing and having sex is not false,” Baena said. “Back then, nuns weren’t nuns because they were pious and felt a calling to god. The vast majority of them were only there because of circumstance, and generally against their will.” Baena added that while researching “The Decameron,” he interviewed religious scholars who confirmed that the stories in “The Decameron” were factual.
“I think to some extent, these protesters want to whitewash history and present it as though basically all of these people were saints, when in reality they were real people who had just as rich of an interior life and emotions and desires as we do,” Baena said.
“The Little Hours” took in roughly $62,000 in two theaters following its June 30 release, making it one of only a handful of specialty releases in 2017 to earn a per-theater average of $20,000 or more. Because the movie is a small production, Baena said he doesn’t see the protests by Catholic groups as a deathblow or a boon to the film’s commercial performance. “I don’t think it’s enough pushback to create an aura of controversy that would be super helpful,” he said.
The writer-director does have a sense of humor about the negative reactions, however. After the website The Catholic League called the film “trash, pure trash” in an article about the movie’s Sundance premiere, Baena had the quote added to both the trailer and poster. The Catholic League story, entitled “Sundance Film Festival Trashes Nuns,” was not a review — the writer hadn’t seen the movie — but instead criticized the festival for accepting “The Little Hours” and “Novitiate,” the drama about Catholic nuns set during the era of Vatican II.
In what appears to be the only actual review of the film by a Christian publication, the Catholic journal America magazine called the movie “hilarious” and “occasionally laugh-out-loud funny.” In a separate editorial entitled “A defense of ‘The Little Hours’: Finding grace in vulgarity,” the magazine said the film’s “release and the religious conversation around it are great examples of our need to counter the impulse to assume that all religion or depictions of religious people must be pure, clean and undefiled.”
For Baena, “The Little Hours” isn’t making any sort of statement about religion. “It’s really just me trying to bridge the gap between us and history and show how relatable historical people are,” he said. “The whole point of the church is to understand that we are flawed people and that it’s sort of our duty to make ourselves better, and I think my movie doesn’t really go counter to that.”