Dolores Hart was an actress whose career was on the rise and who was engaged to marry an adoring fiance when she chose to enter the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut and begin an existence as a Benedictine nun. Directed by Rebecca Cammisa (of 2009’s “Which Way Home”), the Oscar-nominated short documentary “God Is the Bigger Elvis” uses Hart’s story as a way to gentle examine what would lead a woman to choose the cloistered, strict lifestyle of a monastery in the contemporary age.
The film, which premieres on HBO this Thursday, April 5th at 8pm, knows it has an almost too-good-to-be-true subject in Hart, who’s become Mother Prioress of the abbey and is a warm, twinkly-eyed presence. She was a woman who seems to have had everything, including beauty, love, contract offers and roles alongside Montgomery Clift, George Hamilton and Robert Wagner, as well as, of course, the King himself.
“I often wonder why God gave me such an opportunity to audition for Elvis,” she tells the camera of her first role, playing opposite Presley in 1957’s “Loving You.” “There were so many of us in line that day, and I just can’t believe that I got the part.” Her openness and sense of humor about her path make a potentially alienating world more welcoming — reading aloud from a fan letter she’s gotten, she laughed about the line “What are you going now?”
But it’s the testimony from the other nuns that fills out the film and makes it more than just a curious portrait of an unusual life by offering a sense of some of the other pathways that brought the inhabitants of Regina Laudis to where they are today.
One novice is a recovering alcoholic who still attends AA meetings in her wimple, while another nun speaks of first visiting the monastery as a young woman and being impressed and surprised by those she met there — “we sensed in them liberated women.”
One interviewee even bravely tries to tackle the issue of chastity, saying “We are very sexual women here at the Abbey. Our sexuality is not denied us in any way.” (“People automatically are wondering, what does she mean by that? She’s a nun!” she laughingly allows.) For her, singing as a physical act fulfills the same need, and even if you have trouble wrapping your head around that, you can appreciate the sincerity of the faith with which she offers the explanation. “God is the Bigger Elvis” manages to make something earnest, unfussy and down-to-earth of a choice that’s likely, for many of us, to be difficult to comprehend.