Catholic Culture Appropriation in The Little Hours

the little hours

Initially, I wasn’t sure if I should bother to review The Little Hours. It didn’t seem worth the time. Generally, the film was poorly received, scoring a 5.8 on imbd and a 78% on rotten tomatoes. Catholic audiences hated it! Not just because it’s not a very good film, but because of its disgusting depiction of the Catholic Church and Catholic culture. However, after thinking about what exactly was wrong with this film, I think that there’s something to learn from its errors.

The greatest shortcoming of The Little Hours if often overlooked. Catholic audiences wrote off the film after seeing nuns and clergy portrayed as awful human beings. This is because of the social conditions of America today. The non-fiction work Hollywood vs. America explains it best. Michael Medved suggests there are certain American values, like religion and family, which are negatively portrayed in mainstream media. I want to make clear that this is a social issue, and for many people a social issue might be a good enough reason to write-off a film. However, is there any literary reason to reject it?

The Little Hours is a film about three mentally unstable postulants: Sister Alessandra (Alisson Brie), Sister Ginevra (Kate Micucci), and Sister Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza). Sister Alessandra is a postulate who is living in the convent while her father arranges a marriage for her which she desires with all her heart – the problem is, her father is not trying to arrange the marriage at all, and expects her to live her entire life in the convent. Sister Ginevra is a good person who feels alone, needs friends, and is tempted by impure thoughts. Sister Fernanda is a compulsively lying apostate with anger problems who spends her nights in the forest practicing pagan rites.

Image result for the little hours

These three characters are rich and dynamic. I found the first 25 minutes of the film incredibly entertaining, although distasteful. As socially damaging as these depictions are, there’s no literary reason why it would be wrong to depict nuns or clergy as unstable people. The literary problem arose near the middle: when they harangued their audience with sex scenes for half an hour. In context, it is possible that sex in this particular story might have been realistic or well done. Sister Fernanda corrupts the other two sisters into justifying fornication. She gets them drunk and tells them tempting stories about witchcraft. The literary problem wasn’t these nuns having sex. The literary problem, at first, was with the length of the sex scenes. In essay writing, it is necessary to omit needless words. In story-telling, one must omit needless events. “They had sex,” is a fine thing for a story to say. “They had sex, in the way…” is rarely, if ever, necessary for the story.

After fast-forwarding through the inappropriate parts of the film, I kept hope. “Alright,” I though, “maybe the length of the sex scenes was a symptom of how our culture depicts sex in films, not a blatant to disrespect the sanctity of nuns and the church.”

I was gravely mistaken.

The saddest part of the film was the happy ending. After confessing without penitence to Bishop Bartolomeo (Fred Armisen), the three sisters help the gardener they fornicated with escape from prison. Finally, Father Tomaso and Mother Superior run away from their vows to be with each other.

Are these realistic and interesting events for a story? Absolutely. So, what’s the problem?

The rejection of vows is clearly presented as the happy ending, but for the characters it seems like it would be done with a level of regret. The line between comedy and tragedy is drawn by the morality of the author, and the author (or director) of The Little Hours drew their line in a different place than the characters did.

The film is about Catholics. Its material is Catholic culture. Despite this, the comedy is escaping vows, and the tragedy is remaining in them. For the characters, the happiness or comedy would contain regret, or the line wouldn’t be so clear. The happy ending, then, provides context for the rest of the film. Sister Fernanda, who corrupted her fellow sisters, was a sort of hero for sneaking out every night to practice pegan rites, because she, too, was escaping vows. Sister Ginevra’s goodness was actually internalized oppression, and she was set free by disobedience and attempts to fornicate. Sister Alessandra’s entire conflict could not have been about discerning a vocation, but about escaping one.

If the author truly understood their characters, the happy ending could still have been happy, but it should have been conflicted. Father Tomaso could still have ran away with Mother Superior, but slight regret would have made the story believable. Without that regret, the story ended up being a poor depiction of its characters and their humanity, therefore a poor story.

The literary problem was appropriation of Catholic culture. When a writer tells a story about a culture which is not his own, they will fill in the gaps with their own culture. If an Anglo-American writer were to write a comedy set in Black culture without understanding it, the happy-ending would be happy by an Anglo-American standard, but contradict the standard of the Black characters in the story. If a secular writer writes about Catholics, the same is true.

Does this mean authors aren’t allowed to write about cultures foreign to them? Well, not necessarily. The writer has to portray the wholeness of the human experience, and every human being has a culture. As Flannery O’Connor says, “… it is the particular burden of the fiction writer that he has to make one country do for all and that he has to evoke that one country through the concrete particulars of life that he can make believable.”

When a writer appropriates a culture they limit the concrete particulars they can make believable, thereby limiting their depiction of the human experience. What’s best is to write about a culture who’s boundaries you know. Within those boundaries (the manners of the people) one can express what is beyond them (the mystery of everything).

In with the appropriation in The Little Hours there are a slew of social problems, but I’m not an activist. As a Catholic, it was a disgusting movie to sit through. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without fast-forward. However, it would be unfair of me to critique the movie solely on those standards.

So, in all fairness, The Little Hours isn’t bad because it’s a gross depiction of Catholics. It’s bad because it’s an incorrect depiction of them. The series of events could have remained exactly the same if the characters behaved like human beings and had investment in their vows, but they didn’t. A satyr of Catholics is called for – we’re worth satirizing. However, satyr without understand is bad story-telling.

-J. Hector Guardiola