The Return of Nunsploitation

Jeff Baena’s The Little Hours is a clever update on Boccaccio’s The Decameron.

Michael Atkinson

In The Little Hours, Kate Micucci, Alison Brie and Aubrey Plaza turn nunsploitation on its head. (Courtesy of Brigade)

Of recent trends in Amer­i­can indie film­mak­ing, few are as endear­ing as the hip­ster pen­chant for yes­ter­year modes and gen­res. If Quentin Tarantino’s trib­utes to the grind­house films of the 70s and 80s marked this tendency’s first wave, then today we are see­ing the sec­ond wave, with mil­len­ni­al film­mak­ers homag­ing all sorts of half-for­got­ten psy­chotron­ic junk (more often than not, sim­ple slash­er films). But 39-year-old Jeff Baena’s The Lit­tle Hours is among the first reimag­in­ings, com­ic or oth­er­wise, of what’s known as nun­sploita­tion.” Oh yes, there is such a thing, deep in the bow­els of movie his­to­ry: a 70s sub-sub­genre of soft­core Ital­ian and French pulp fash­ioned from Catholic taboo and fetishism, fea­tur­ing nude, sex-starved nuns, often whipped by sadis­tic les­bian superiors. 

The matter-of-fact mixture of 14th-century plot-stuff, 20th-century genre hooey and 21st-century comic cadences is seamless and funny and even sensible.

Bae­na even craft­ed his cred­its to look like some­thing that would front a dis­rep­utable dri­ve-in movie cir­ca 1973, all cheesy type­face and tone-deaf design. But his movie isn’t quite a spoof — it’s an adap­ta­tion of a sto­ry from Boccaccio’s The Decameron (third day, first sto­ry), and for a while, a faith­ful one. In Boc­cac­cio, a young man oppor­tune­ly obtains a handy­man job at a nun­nery by pre­tend­ing he’s deaf and dumb; in short order, the nuns take turns exploit­ing him for sex, until he’s the stud for the entire con­vent. Baena’s iron­i­cal­ly Amer­i­can­ized ver­sion is more com­plex and filled with TV-com­e­dy vets: The handy­man, Maset­to (Dave Fran­co), begins as the ser­vant, and boy toy, of a manor’s lady (a hilar­i­ous Lau­ren Weed­man), whose cuck­old hus­band is played by Nick Offer­man with his cus­tom­ary plum­mi­ness. Caught with his pants down, Maset­to flees and is tak­en in by the local convent’s priest ( John C. Reil­ly), both of them agree­ing on the deaf/​dumb ruse. 

The nuns are a tough lot, spit­ting fucks” and ban­ter­ing in con­tem­po­rary argot as though they were in a Richard Lin­klater com­e­dy about soror­i­ty girls. Aubrey Plaza (also a co-pro­duc­er) is a self­ish mis­an­thrope; Ali­son Brie is a spoiled merchant’s daugh­ter wait­ing for her father (Paul Reis­er) to earn her dowry and free her; Kate Micuc­ci is a neb­bishy and sex­u­al­ly impres­sion­able mis­fit. Mol­ly Shan­non is the help­less moth­er supe­ri­or (unlike in Boc­cac­cio, she does not par­take of Maset­to), and Fred Armisen shows up late as a church func­tionary, aghast at the litany of offens­es the sis­ters have tal­lied up. Some­times the movie threat­ens to feel like a reunion of three or four dif­fer­ent TV shows, except for the remark­able faith kept with its clas­si­cal source. 

It’s a small, fun, feath­er-light con­coc­tion, too minor to be any­thing but a Net­flix hit, but that’s fine. Expec­ta­tions should be as mod­est as they’d be for a sum­mer cock­tail. A whiff of Mon­ty Python can be detect­ed, but one could say the same of Game of Thrones. Bae­na goes for a bal­ance between laughs and sto­ry, and the mat­ter-of-fact mix­ture of 14th-cen­tu­ry plot-stuff, 20th-cen­tu­ry genre hooey, and 21st-cen­tu­ry com­ic cadences is seam­less and fun­ny and even sen­si­ble, trans­lat­ing Boccaccio’s raunchy humor into con­tem­po­rary rhythms. (The less-than-mem­o­rable title refers to the Lit­tle Hours of the Vir­gin” prayer litany recit­ed by medieval nuns, unref­er­enced in the film.) The com­ic high­lights are almost all pure­ly tex­tur­al, incon­gru­ous lit­tle line read­ings rather than overt jokes, with the very Amer­i­can accents (in an Ital­ian con­vent) giv­ing the film juice as a kind of run­ning gag. When Jemi­ma Kirke shows up bur­bling British­ness, she’s accused of sound­ing out of place. 

The upshot, how­ev­er, is less a free-for-all gagfest, the kind of thing the Apa­tow school might deliv­er, and more some­thing with an inner life of its own. Micucci’s entire career, includ­ing this film, is mere­ly a one-note home­ly girl schtick, but every­one else is qui­et­ly, sub­tly on the mark. (Mol­ly Shan­non should be in every­thing.) The unclut­tered sim­plic­i­ty of the shoot­ing, and the ground­ing offered by Boc­cac­cio, is noth­ing if not refreshing. 

That’s even before the witch­es’ coven is revealed, danc­ing naked around a mid­night bon­fire (not in Boc­cac­cio), or before one nun is scan­dalous­ly revealed to be Jew­ish, or before the late-night par­ty­ing detours toward casu­al gay encoun­ters and psych-out bel­ladon­na imbibe­ment. Goofy as it is, Baena’s film has a lov­able humil­i­ty to it. It doesn’t try to be the defin­i­tive any­thing, even as it stands as arguably the savvi­est Decameron adap­ta­tion ever made. 

Michael Atkin­son is a film review­er for In These Times. He has writ­ten or edit­ed many books, includ­ing Exile Cin­e­ma: Film­mak­ers at Work Beyond Hol­ly­wood (2008) and the mys­tery nov­els Hem­ing­way Dead­lights (2009) and Hem­ing­way Cut­throat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Con­duct.
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