Is anybody still shocked by the idea of a nun having sex? What about a nun swearing? What about a nun practicing witchcraft? What about a nun taking drugs? Jeff Baena's The Little Hours rests on the assumption that at least some people, willing to see an R-rated comedy, will be so, but given that it comes to us decades after the peak of the nunsploitation genre, the existence of such an audience seems questionable. The kind of person who tries to get Harry Potter banned would certainly have a problem with this film, but the people coming to see Aubrey Plaza, Nick Offerman, Molly Shannon, and John C. Reilly? Probably not.
The Little Hours is a surprisingly faithful adaptation of one of the most famous of the tales in Boccaccio's medieval masterpiece The Decameron. Critic after critic has written that the movie is "not your mother's Boccaccio," making it very obvious that they have never read its hundreds of pages of lascivious priests, orgasmic nuns, country bumpkins tricked into jumping into a vat of shit, vengeful women planting their lovers' heads in flower pots, promiscuous pirates, and sex puns. If anything, the film is rather tame compared to the source material. In this particular tale, Massetto (the puppy-dog-eyed Dave Franco), on the run from a lord with a perpetually constipated expression (Nick Offerman), takes refuge in a convent, pretending to be deaf and mute. The nuns (Aubrey Plaza, Kate Micucci, and Alison Brie) are bored with the tedium of their root vegetable-heavy diet and their schedules of gardening, laundry, embroidery, and prayer. The virile young handyman, who they believe can't betray them if he can't speak, becomes their sex toy, while the dotty Mother Superior (Molly Shannon) fudges the convent accounts and the local priest (John C. Reilly) tipples the sacramental wine.
The cast is solid, though the strongest players are underused. Molly Shannon gives a warm, only slightly off-kilter performance that supports the more flamboyant turns by the younger actresses, but doesn't give vent to her considerable comedic gifts, while John C. Reilly manages to shine in a thankless role as a sinning, but very kindhearted priest. Aubrey Plaza is flamboyantly grumpy, and good fun, but her performance lacks the depth she brought to her role as April on Parks and Recreation, while Alison Brie is appealing, though a bit bland, and Kate Micucci is alternately nebbishy and hysterical, though not hysterically funny. Dave Franco acquits himself well as the picture's eye candy and is funniest in his deaf-mute scenes. Unfortunately, I must confess that Nick Offerman, in the most cartoonish role, is gruffly tiresome.
There is nothing especially subversive going on here, given that the story is nearly seven hundred years old, but the real kicker is how gentle the humor is. Despite the centrality of sex in the story, there is very little nudity and the characters have pretty vanilla, if rabbit-like frequent, sex. Drugs are ingested only accidentally, and all of these characters are happy drunks. There's a sort of dopey sweetness in the way these characters ultimately demonstrate a live-and-let-live tolerance for heresy, sex for pleasure, and sex for love. Though Nick Offerman rattles off a litany of his favorite torture devices, no torture is shown on screen, and a witch's coven is devoid of evil, more like a women's friendship circle than a satanic cult. This is partly due to the half-baked dialogue, reportedly largely improvised, which makes the whole movie feel like a loose-limbed open rehearsal. There are some strong comedic ideas, but few are developed enough to elicit more than a chuckle.
Visually, The Little Hours is sun-drenched, flower-strewn, and rather strangely, clinically clean. The music, borrowing heavily from actual medieval compositions, including a piece by Hildegarde von Bingen, is remarkably beautiful and contributes to the mellow, pleasant atmosphere, while also providing a few inches of emotional depth. Witchcraft or no witchcraft, one cannot believe the devil exists in the world of this film, so sunnily and anachronistically tolerant. While the original story ends with an image of a convent overrun with small
children, the nuns praised for taking in so many 'orphans,' The Little Hours rigorously ignores the more inconvenient realities of the medieval period - no birth control, the severe penalties exacted on women accused of witchcraft and heresy - and opts instead for an adolescent reverie of repression giving way to sex-soaked freedom.
This is not the first adaptation of this particular story: it is the basis for the second story in Pasolini's Il decamerone, released in 1971. Pasolini reveled in the dirt, blood, sweat, and semen of the Middle Ages, and his nuns are far raunchier than Baena's, his approach more explicitly splits sex apart from love, but while Pasolini gives the audience a good poke in the eye, Baena offers a slightly sweaty bear hug. The Little Hours has much in common with the pudgy donkey that the sisters fight over: a bit dim, prone to forage aimlessly, plodding, and fuzzy, but also rather cute in an unassuming way.