Hollywood’s obsession with on-screen nuns, explained

Hollywood loves nuns. This is not so much a hypothesis as an increasingly clear observation. Ever since the film genre known as “nunsploitation” reached its peak in 1970s Europe, Hollywood cameras have remained fixed, albeit to varying degrees of success and in fluctuating waves of popularity, on the sacred brotherhood of the Catholic Church. As the number of people identifying as Christian continues to decline In the United States, the fascination with women of God – in film, anyway – remains an intriguing and controversial trend. (See: Benedettain Cannes last year.) Even streaming services have jumped on the bandwagon in recent years: in 2020, Netflix scored a surprise hit with warrior nunwhile more recently Peacock lit the series Mrs Davisfeaturing GLOW‘s Betty Gilpin as a struggling nun “an all-powerful Artificial Intelligence.”

So what is it about these holy warriors who inspire conflict (Doubt, warrior nunsame The sound of music), humor (The singing nun, sister act, The small hours), or, perhaps most often, fear (Conspiracy, Devils, the nun)? Why, in 2022, does Hollywood seem more transfixed than ever?

Academics would say it’s because the seemingly paradoxical values ​​of Catholic brotherhood – power and piety, strength and femininity – are more urgent and confusing than ever. The secrecy that surrounds the way of life of the nuns gives them allure; their choice to live in a world without men makes them different; their sacred connection empowers them. It’s a dangerous concoction in combination, especially in a woman, and above all in a society not always concerned with interpreting nuance. A woman making a choice about her own body and her own beliefs without any interference from men can easily be interpreted as a radical act of feminism – and nuns appear frequently in two genres of film often linked to social criticism and caricature: horror and comedy. .

“On the one hand, there is a fascination with someone who would be so devoted to his God, to his religious understanding of God, that he would take these vows of chastity and poverty,” says Sr. Brent Rodriguez-Plate. , professor of religion. and film at Hamilton College. On the other hand, “there is a secret life; they are cloistered behind walls. There is a secret that always fascinates. The nuns are also instantly recognizable – everyone knows a habit when they see one – and subsequently easy to portray on the big screen. This allows filmmakers to play with a symbolism that could escape less identifiable protagonists.

A still of warrior nun.

Courtesy of NETFLIX

The first real peak of depiction of nuns in film – known as the “nunsploitation” genre – was launched in Europe in the late 1960s. The genre was keen to “push the boundaries of what these characters are”, says Rodriguez-Plate, questioning, criticizing, distorting or “mocking” traditional religious structures and doctrines of power. Many films rebelled against the religious or sexual control of the traditional Catholic Church; in Ken Russel’s 1971 film Devils, for example, Vanessa Redgrave’s sister Jeanne in Les Anges is sexually repressed and obsessed with Urbain Grandier, a priest, whom she accuses of bewitching her. In an attempt to exorcise this bewitchment, the convent of sisters undress together and go into a spiritual “frenzy.”

The film sparked the kind of controversy that was repeated last year, when Paul Verhoeven’s modern non-sploitation film Benedetta premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. Set in 17th century Italy, the protagonist, Benedetta, is a nun who begins to have religious and, oddly enough, erotic visions, while developing a secret sexual relationship with another nun. As a mystic, she had recurring visions of Jesus, which made her respected and listened to by members of her convent and the Church. “She uses [this newfound power] for herself,” explains Virginie Efira, who plays the main character. “The film takes on a political dimension, simply in the idea that it embraces sexuality. It is about a woman who negotiates, who does not leave sexuality as a territory reserved for men. It is also its own domain. (Example: at various points in the film, Benedetta kisses the breast of a statue of the Virgin Mary; another smaller statuette is carved from a dildo.)

In this area, Benedetta is also a defender. He is “someone who fights for freedom of thought, which is very complicated in this convent”, says Efira. “I think religion has often restricted women’s bodies and the question the film asks is, ‘Who owns the female body?'” Benedetta, the convent is shown as a means of emancipation, rather than oppression, for the main character. Whether her choices are moral or not, she controls them and she holds the Church accountable for her own hypocrisy. “She denounces religious institutions for their blasphemy, for saying, ‘You think you have God on your side when you only care about money and vanity,'” Efira says.

The way in which Benedetta depicts the Church has not gone unnoticed by religious groups. Last September, the premiere of Benedetta at the New York Film Festival encountered a crowd of Catholic protesters, reported Variety. The film was also banned by the government in Russia and with the support of the Russian Orthodox Church, according to the French weekly International mail. The conservative, Catholic-run American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property called the film “blasphemous and pornographic”.

a nun raises her arms in the movie benedetta
A still of Benedetta.

Courtesy of IFC Films

“Any time you take religious figures, figures that people consider sacred and important in their lives and you twist them maybe a little bit, you don’t care a bit about them, maybe you twist them a bit towards the dark side, people will respond,” Rodriguez-Plate says. Benedetta simply echoes the above: Devils was the subject of such controversy that it had to be re-edited for publication. (The original cut was made available to the public until 2017.) More recently, The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) by Martin Scorsese was so controversial that a fundamentalist Catholic group carried out a terrorist attack in a cinema showing the film in Paris.

Efira did not know how Benedetta would be received by the public before its broadcast. “Body and religion, sex and church, these are two things that don’t usually mix well,” she admits. But Efira insists on the importance of freedom of expression on both sides, as long as it remains non-violent.

“The idea of ​​shocking just to be controversial does not interest me, but being confronted with questions, seeing something surprising, unexpected, even something that can be repulsive but which we think about afterwards… is something that I find interesting,” she added. said. “For that, you need a story that comes from someone who doesn’t ask themselves: ‘Is this going to appeal to everyone so that it will be lucrative?’ nor “Are we sure that morally everyone will be okay with this?” Because if they do, conversations can’t start.

The controversy surrounding fictional portrayals of nuns has led some in Hollywood to attempt more nuanced non-fictional portrayals. The 2021 documentary rebel hearts chronicled the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary’s fight for equality and freedom against a powerful cardinal in 1960s Los Angeles. In the film, the nuns are seen through a different lens than nunsploitation, but with a no less powerful feminist message: they march for social justice, advocate for their own education, and go against the hierarchy of the Church to fight for what is right.

“There has always been a kind of mystique around [nuns] and there has been a stereotype that these nuns with the rulers slap people and strictly discipline them,” says rebel hearts Shawnee producer Isaac Smith. “In reality, nuns have always been somewhat of the unsung heroines of social activism and civil rights. They’re the ones who have always worked behind the scenes for social causes and really haven’t received any accolades for it. But if you look back in history you will see that they have always been social activists.

“But if you look back in history, you’ll see that [nuns have] always been social activists.

Smith adds, “Some of these nuns actually became nuns because of their desire to learn; they had the opportunity to become who they were without the shackles of mainstream patriarchal society. Thanks to the convent, the women had the opportunity to learn. Smith wanted to help tell their stories, which are often subject to stereotypes and misconceptions. “I just saw this as a real hero’s journey and something that could be inspirational to people who watched it,” she says.

But with agency comes power, and power, especially in the hands of a woman, so often instills fear. This explains why so many nuns in movies, even decades after the peak of non-sploitation, get the horror treatment: Conspiracy franchise to newer versions such as Agnes (2021), bad nun (2020), and the next movie The Devil’s Light, nuns have become mundane horror figures, frightening for their mastery of both the sacred and the profane. And when the nuns of Hollywood do not have been scary, they’ve been funny: It’s hard to imagine a woman in a habit without Whoopi Goldberg’s Deloris Van Cartier sister act comes to mind.

Today, filmmakers and moviegoers are still fascinated by the idea of ​​women in sacred and inscrutable positions of power. Increasingly, nuns feature in genres other than comedy, horror, and erotica; sci-fi, fantasy and action capitalize on plot. Mrs Davis and warrior nun Season 2, due sometime in 2022, seems notably determined to restructure the stereotype of a nun as aloof and incomprehensible. Yet when it comes to movies, the nuns always seem to be in constant opposition to the world around them, be it Mrs Davistechnological advances or warrior nunthe patriarchal society. This conflict makes them menacing – and fascinating.

These nuanced portrayals of nuns onscreen are key, says Rodriguez-Plate. “Movies aren’t just about entertainment; they change the way we see the world,” he says. “We think we’ll just come in and float and escape for two hours and then come back and be the same person. But the fact is that we have really changed.

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