As spirited and seemingly out of control as The Little Hours gets, it also commits itself to the period and the religious doctrine of the time, and it’s that authenticity that lends the film an edge as a sophisticated comedy about drunken, horny, spiritually compromised members of a religious sect.
Two things writer-director Jeff Baena does exceedingly well is work with large ensemble casts and ground his seemingly outrageous stories in a type of reality. With his previous two films, Life After Beth and Joshy, Baena grounded his stories in the present day. But with his latest, The Little Hours, he jumps back in time to the Middle Ages, when convents were less a place for the pious and more a place where women were placed by their families because their families were too poor to afford a dowry for them to get married, or they were the youngest of many daughters and therefore not marriage material for the same reasons. In other words, these were not women who were ready to give up being sexual beings just because they wore habits and were isolated from men.
It should come as no surprise that Baena graduated with a minor in Medieval and Renaissance Studies when he was studying film at NYU, and he seems especially fascinated with sexual politics of the time, as well as the ways people broke free of “acceptable” sexual practices.
Based on several tales from the 14th century short story collection “The Decameron,” from Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio, The Little Hours made its local debut at the Chicago Critics Film Festival and features a collection of some of the great improv comedy actors working today and places them in a costume piece filmed in and among real castles and convents in Tuscany, all of which adds to the film’s authenticity. Granted, the performers are speaking in fairly modern tongue (with their own accents), which might ruin it for history buffs, but it makes it all the more hilarious. The three primary nun characters are played by Alison Brie (as your garden-variety, sex-curious nun), Aubrey Plaza (the troublemaker, for reasons we find out eventually), and Kate Micucci (who might be a lesbian). Their Mother Superior is played by Molly Shannon, with a fully-bearded John C. Reilly as the supervising priest, Father Tommasso.
Trouble at the convent begins when Father Tommasso must find a new servant boy to work the garden and make general repairs around the property, after Plaza’s character has scared away the previous hired hand simply for saying hello to and daring to look at the nuns. The priest hires Massetto (Dave Franco), who had previously worked for Lord Bruno (Nick Offerman, who steals the few scenes he is in) and was caught having sex with Lady Bruno (Lauren Weedman). Franco is the film’s secret weapon, playing a variation of every hunky man on the cover of a romance novel, with the expected sharp-as-a-marble wit and intelligence.
To stay out of trouble with the wrathful nuns, it is agreed that Massetto will pretend to be a deaf-mute, but that doesn’t stop the sisters from noticing him or his refusal to ever button his puffy white shirts above his navel. The fact that Massetto is also a bit of a sex addict doesn’t help matters. So one by one, the nuns take turns attempting to seduce the strapping young lad, and the convent becomes a den of repressed sexuality suddenly unleashed.
As spirited and seemingly out of control as The Little Hours gets, it also commits itself to the period and the religious doctrine of the time, and it’s that authenticity that lends the film an edge as a sophisticated comedy about drunken, horny, spiritually compromised members of a religious sect. The film has great, little moments and details that add immensely to the period believability of the production as much as the comedy. Additional supporting players include Fred Armisen, Jemima Kirke, Adam Pally, and Paul Reiser, all of whom have great moments. And while it may seem like a crowded, ridiculous piece, Baena somehow pulls it all together into a profile of what happens when you try to suppress natural human desires.
Cinematographer Quyen Tran’s cloaks The Little Hours in a muted, almost dreamlike color palette that makes it look vaguely like faded pages in a centuries-old text, while still appearing lush and a worthy backdrop for so much sensuality.
The final act of the film may stray into the outrageous, as the story reveals exactly what has been driving some of the nuns to depravity. And while spectacle isn’t the same as humor, somehow it works here, and Baena is able to cut loose and go fully Medieval on our collective asses. By the time The Little Hours is done, we discover that is it, in fact, a love story (a couple of them, actually), and that sweetens the pot of this delightful experiment that everyone from Mel Brooks to David Gordon Green has dabbled in over the years. Baena’s love of and respect for history wins the day, and his clearly game actors seal the deal. I can’t wait for you to see this one.
The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre. On opening night, Friday, July 14, writer-director Jeff Baena and lead actor Aubrey Plaza will be on hand after the 7:20pm screening for an audience Q&A, moderated by yours truly. On the same night, they will introduce the 9:45pm showing. On Saturday, July 15, Baena and Plaza return to the Music Box to do a Q&A after the 5pm screening.
Check out the potentially NSFW red-band trailer below.