The last few months have seen a lot of revolutionary groups from the 1960s depicted on screen: the Yippies and the Students for a Democratic Society in “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” the Black Panthers in “Judas and the Black Messiah,” the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in “MLK/FBI” and now the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in “Rebel Hearts.”
And if you don’t think a group of Roman Catholic nuns quite belong on that roster of rabble-rousers, maybe Pedro Kos’ documentary will set you straight. The film, which premiered on the second day of this year’s virtual Sundance Film Festival, finds revolution in the strangest of places — a Catholic college for women and home for nuns in the Los Feliz district of Los Angeles, part of which now serves as the headquarters of the American Film Institute, and part of which ended up in the news a few years ago when Katy Perry tried to buy it.
If that attempted sale caused a fuss, it was nothing compared to the ruckus that the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (or IHM) caused within the Catholic Church in the ’60s. Kos, a longtime documentary editor who made his feature directorial debut with “Bending the Arc” in 2017, has created an affectionate salute to the women who were dubbed “The Pope’s Unruly Flock” in one magazine headline.
The story is specific to one group of women at one particular time, but five decades later, it’s certainly applicable to current questions about the role of religion in society, about the place of tradition and rigor in the Church and about how social justice movements intersect with biblical teachings. And it’s hard not to think Pope Francis would be on the side of the sisters’ ruckus-raising.
The Sisters of the Immaculate Heart became what it was in the 1960s, Kos’ film suggests, partly because some young, independent women saw the religious life as a way out of the patriarchal strictures of normal society, which expected them to become obedient wives and mothers. The problem? “Get thee to a nunnery” has always been a pretty counterproductive way to escape the patriarchy, since the Church is run by men who simply expected the new sisters to become obedient wives to Jesus and servants to a conservative Archdiocese of Los Angeles run by the authoritarian Cardinal James Francis McIntyre.
Anita Caspary, a teacher and scholar with a Stanford Ph.D., figured it out right away when she was ordained as a nun and given a new name by her mentor: Sister Humiliata. (“Sister Mary Humiliata, I insisted upon, to give it some humanity,” she said.)
Cardinal McIntyre was passionate about building Catholic schools throughout Southern California (full disclosure: I spent 12 years in a couple of his schools), and he viewed nuns as ready-made teachers who wouldn’t require salaries. Immaculate Heart College, which was owned and run by the order, was a top-flight school academically, and it also showed a liberal bent at a time when the archdiocese was resisting modernization.
The sisters figured they were taking steps to make worship more joyful and introduce a social justice component into their work with the blessings of the Church, which had been through the tumultuous Vatican II conference in 1962-65, and had made suggestions designed to modernize the faith. Among them: Mass should be conducted in the local language rather than in Latin, the clergy could undertake political and social action to meet community needs and nuns weren’t required to stick to the old-fashioned garments.
Vatican II was a potentially transformative moment, and the IHMs embraced it. “Clearly we were in a boat that needed desperately to be rocked,” one of them says in the film. And rock it they did, from participating in Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Selma and anti-Vietnam war protests to the too-adventurous art of Sister Corita Kent to their decision to no longer wear traditional habits.
Cardinal McIntyre, though, was not a fan of transformation. He labeled Sister Corita’s art “offensive to the faithful,” threatened to shut down the school and warned, “You will suffer for this” if they didn’t revert to more traditional behavior. And when the Vatican weighed in to support McIntyre, the choice was clear: The sisters would have to either reverse course or ask to be released from their vows. Out of an order with about 400 members, 315 opted for the latter and formed a lay community that was not under the control of the Church, but one that was “devoted to the work of the Church.”
“Rebel Hearts,” which is constructed from talking-head interviews, archival footage and a fair amount of artful animation, lets the conflict plays out in a way that seems to jump back and forth in time. It also sets the struggle to purposely anachronistic music: Patti Smith shows up on the soundtrack at one point with her roaring version of The Who’s “My Generation,” while the movie draws its title from a 2018 composition by the Swedish indie-folk duo First Aid Kit. From the perspective of 2021, it’s hard to feel any sympathy for the archdiocesan side, but “Rebel Hearts” does let you feel the pain that went into the sisters’ decision to give up the vows under which most of them had lived their entire adult lives.
Many of the women who are interviewed in the film have since died; Kos made use of interviews done by the film’s writer and producer, Shawnee Isaac-Smith, over the last 20 years. And in the end, the film’s subjects seemed to view their nemesis McIntyre with more sorrow than anger — because, really, you shouldn’t be looking for a group of nuns to hold a grudge, no matter how ill-treated they were.
But, as “Rebel Hearts” make clear, that mercy doesn’t make the sisters less of a force. They may be a forgiving lot, but that doesn’t mean they’re not revolutionaries.