Our host at The Brattle Theatre in Cambridge introduced The Little Hours as a lot like Massachusetts: full of Catholics dropping f-bombs. The Little Hours certainly delivered with its anachronistic and irreverent comedy as a largely improvised retelling of Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, directed by Jeff Baena and starring the likes of Aubrey Plaza, Kate Micucci, Alison Brie, John C. Reilly, Dave Franco, Nick Offerman, and Fred Armisen. But, what I found even more enjoyable was its depiction of women and their relationships with each other, their selves, and their sexuality.
The Little Hours opens with Plaza’s character Fernanda returning to her convent with an escaped donkey. Nearly the first words out of her mouth are “Don’t fucking talk to us,” an exclamation that seems strangely at odds with the film’s medieval setting but rather compatible with the old man leering at her. Fernanda’s frustration with being objectified drives the plot of the film from this moment forward, and results in a full-bodied, and legitimately funny, depiction of women.
As Fernanda and her fellow nuns, Genevra (Micucci) and Alessandra (Brie), stitch embroidery, grow turnips, attend confession, and steal sacramental wine to drink during their secret nighttime escapades, a servant named Masetto (Franco) runs away from his lord (Offerman). Caught sleeping with his master’s wife, Masetto befriends the convent’s drunken priest, Father Tommasso (Reilly), during his escape. Father Tommasso offers Masetto a safe place to stay, the convent, if he helps around the grounds — and can pretend to be a deaf mute.
Masetto’s disguise as a deaf mute is clearly designed to placate Fernanda and the other nuns. Where the leering groundskeeper annoyed Fernanda with his catcalling, Masetto promises to do no such thing, as he must pretend to neither hear nor speak. With one less person telling her how to behave, Fernanda can turn her thoughts towards her true desires: drinking, getting laid, and practicing witchcraft.
From here, The Little Hours plays with ideas and expectations of female relationships, desires, and sexuality. Without spoiling the plot, expect love potions, lesbianism, covens, friendship, very detailed descriptions of sexual acts in a confessional, and lots and lots of alcohol.
What ultimately makes The Little Hours so powerful, and not just funny, though is its relationship with its source text – The Decameron. Boccaccio’s collection of novellas came to fame as a story about a group of wealthy Italians who flee into the countryside to escape the Black Plague. To keep themselves occupied, the characters of The Decameron tell the various stories within it. In many ways, The Decameron becomes a story about staying alive through stories. Where Scheherazade told one thousand and one stories to prolong her life day by day, Boccaccio’s characters tell their own tales to ward off fear and loneliness.
If the stories of The Decameron then are meant to keep our spirits alive, The Little Hours certainly does just that. But, where The Decameron did so in more religiously appropriate language, The Little Hours does so by empowering its female characters. The women of The Little Hours are loud, raucous, sexually-liberated characters trapped in the mold of medieval expectations who entertain with their independence and defiance.
An utterly wild ride, The Little Hours covers a lot of ground in its hour and a half. From proper church prayer to drunken wanderings in the wee hours of the night, it makes one thing clear: women are complex and funny and more than they appear, even when donning a habit.
Top photo: the Little Hours
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Cecilia Nowell is an immigration paralegal by day and a freelance journalist by night. She writes about political art, feminism, and other fun things, and her writing has appeared in Bitch, The Establishment, and Ms. Magazine. In her free time, she drinks too much tea, listens to too many podcasts, and runs a cat blog. Follow her at cecilianowell.wordpress.com and on Twitter @cecilianowell.