There’s a lot going on in this 14th century Italian convent: fornication, drunkenness, witchcraft, foul language. Plus, the damned donkey keeps escaping. In the grand tradition of recognizing the faulty humanity under religious cloaks, writer/director Jeff Baena has crafted a farcical film where modern-day words are placed like transformational wafers on the tongues of Medieval nuns.
Based on Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron” (specifically the first story of the third day, wherein Masetto da Lamporecchio pretends to be mute so he can work as a gardener and have sex with nuns in a convent), The Little Hours takes place largely in a cloister where no one wants to be. Alessandra (Alison Brie) is only biding time until her dad can find her a husband, Genevra (Kate Micucci) just wants to gossip and narc on everyone, and Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza) is Aubrey Plaza. Rounding out the congregation are John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon as the convent-leading Father Tommasso and Mother Superior.
Life there is dull, and the old adage about idle hands comes into play, especially since the young women holed up in the concrete walls aren’t so much dedicated to the church as they are out of other options. The core of the comedy comes initially from how aggressive and un-nunlike these nuns are–playing off our expectations while letting Micucci and Plaza be as vulgar as they can be.
The action starts rolling when Massetto (Dave Franco) has to flee Lord Bruno’s (Nick Offerman) estate when he’s found lying biblically with the master’s wife (Lauren Weedman). He pretends to be a deaf/mute and begins gardening at the convent where almost every nun eagerly takes off her half-a-dozen robes for him. From there, it’s a downhill spiral into sacramental wine-chugging buffoonery.
Baena essentially wrote a script for 2017 but filmed it in 1333. Like a cousin to Drunk History, the costumes and castles do the heavy lifting to put us in the era.
Beyond the setting, the set-up, and the mores, you get exactly the modern delivery you’d expect from all the actors, except for Micucci, who goes wonderfully crazy, culminating in fireball intensity during a tepidly-shot climax that doesn’t do her performance justice. Brie is sweet and neurotic, Plaza burns whole villages to the ground with her stare, and Franco is lovably goofy. Even Jemima Kirke cameos as a 14th-century version of her character from Girls.
The film is purposefully low key, allowing for the outbursts of sex, violence and bad habits to leap off the screen. It’s a shock to the system that eventually wears off, but still delights, as the loose plot sends everyone careening into deeper depravity. It isn’t quite Pythonesque chaos, though. More like a Medieval Noises Off! with fewer opportunities for misunderstanding. The pastoral placement and tone (shot through occasionally with f-bombs) is a necessary strength, but ultimately leaves The Little Hours slight.
Still, it’s funny and inventive. At 80 minutes long, it knows its limitations, and you could easily see more like this in a series that spans our flat view on morality in all sorts of ages. Vulgar puritans landing on Plymouth Rock, douchebag crusaders, bitching Greek philosophers. There’s a whole franchise here for Baena and any comedians who want a weekend getaway to an exotic locale.
3.5 out of 5 blasphemous burritos
Images: Bow and Arrow Entertainment