“The Little Hours” is a hilariously irreverent romp that seems to be channeling some of the spirit of “Monty Python’s Life of Brian,” as well as the youthful feminine angst of “Heathers.” And there’s even a dash of Mel Brooks about some of the lunacy. But don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s in any way derivative.
The offbeat comedy is a fresh take on medieval nuns behaving badly — or, more specifically, acting like bratty Millennials. Based loosely on Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th-century work “The Decameron,” the jokes are decidedly 21st century in attitude.
But “The Little Hours” is no one-trick pony. While the lunacy of nuns who swear like sailors makes a comically boisterous impression, it’s also about women in the Middle Ages forced into religious life for various reasons and how they cope, viewed through a decidedly humorous lens.
As adapted by writer-director Jeff Baena (who co-wrote “I Heart Huckabees”), “The Little Hours” is an edgy satire and sex farce that offers some riotous humor. The nuns live in a rustic Italian convent in relative poverty, but their vows of chastity and obedience are roundly shattered. They are anything but devout. These nuns sin. A lot.
Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza and Kate Micucci (half of Garfunkel & Oates) are the very funny habit-wearing trio at the center of the tale. They are ill-tempered, gossipy and anything but God-fearing. When a comely young man named Massetto (Dave Franco ) starts working in the gardens at their convent, any vestiges of modesty or aspirations to holiness are tossed aside. Sexual hijinks ensue.
Though the story is set in 1347, the three women speak in thoroughly modern style, with contemporary slang and nasty barbs that offer a comically incongruous contrast with their religious setting.
For instance, when a genial farmer offers a greeting, he is met with a distinctly vituperative colloquial response. “Beautiful morning, sisters,” he says in passing. “Don’t f—ing talk to us,” yells Sister Fernanda (Plaza, who also co-produced the film). “I told you never to talk to us! What are you looking at? Mind your own f—ing business.”
It’s initially jarring to hear the women speak in present-day non-pleasantries. But it’s no more anachronistic or linguistically inaccurate than films set in Europe or Asia in which everyone speaks English with a British accent. (If this film were to be historically on point, it would be spoken as Boccacio wrote it: in an ancient Florentine dialect.)
Fernanda is the mean girl of the triad. Lacking any religious ardor — or much human decency — how she got into the nunnery is anybody’s guess. On top of cruel taunts to the elderly farmer and nasty behavior toward her religious cohorts, Fernanda mysteriously disappears at night, riding the convent’s donkey into the nearby woods.
Alessandra (Brie) has been shipped off to the convent by her financially faltering father (Paul Reiser). She has no aspirations to asceticism. In fact, she yearns to marry. The too-few scenes between Brie and Reiser are some of the most subtly funny in the film. (“I was hoping we’d have the whole dowry situation locked down,” he laments.) Genevra (Micucci), meanwhile, appears eager to please, but she’s hiding a dark secret.
The cloistered convent is overseen by a kindly Mother Superior (Molly Shannon) and Mass is said by the bumbling Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly), whose seeming benevolence masks his own penchant for secretive behavior. The scenes where he hears confessions while liquored up are particularly amusing.
Living nearby is the loutish aristrocrat Lord Bruno (Nick Offerman) and his disdainful, dallying wife Francesca (Lauren Weedman). Massetto’s fate is tied to theirs for reasons we won’t reveal.
It’s a brilliantly comic cast. Big points to Offerman whose deadpan style and ridiculous bowl-cut wig combine to make his conspiracy theory tirades against the invading Guelphs hysterically funny. Just the word “Guelph” elicits giggles. Offerman, Plaza and Reiser all have a talent for sardonic comedy, which suits the bawdy material perfectly. Micucci is affably zany. Fred Armisen has a small part as a censorious visiting bishop. The score by Dan Romer has a superb period accuracy.
The absurd comedy, shot on location in Tuscany, traffics in lust, deception, inebriation, witchcraft, poisonous substances, and unbridled pettiness. But it lacks actual malice, even occasionally offering moments of genuine sweetness. Some of the comic bits stretch into silliness or run out of steam by the third act, but most hit their intended marks.
Like “The Beguiled,” “The Little Hours” deals in repressed feminine sexuality. Both movies involve one man as the object of several women’s lust. Each has striking period production design and noteworthy costumes. Both are worth seeing, particularly for moviegoers who are not fans of transformers or souped-up animated cars.
But while Sofia Coppola’s latest deals seriously with complex emotions, “The Little Hours” chooses to view sexual repression from a deliciously lighthearted, giddy and ribald perspective.