At this point, satirizing the sexual hypocrisy of the Catholic church is like shooting fish in a barrel, but at least Jeff Baena, writer and director of The Little Hours, does it with an antique firearm. Adapting two tales from the Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio's 14th-century compendium of caustic stories, Baena steers a cast of familiar faces—John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Paul Reiser, Fred Armisen—through a period-dress but colloquially spoken farce about a cloister of lascivious nuns and their randy gardener. When the film works, it's hilarious; when it doesn't, it's just another snarky indie comedy with too many Saturday Night Live alums. But Baena deserves credit just for dipping into the Decameron, which opened Italian literature to a more tolerant view of human impulse and, notably, to women characters who were forceful, self-aware, and possessed of their own strong desires.
Apart from Pier Paolo Pasolini's lusty 1971 adaptation, the Decameron hasn't exactly thrived onscreen, partly because its narrative frame is such a bummer. Boccaccio began the book when the Black Death was sweeping across Europe; by one estimate, it would wipe out 80 percent of the Italian populace in four years. Boccaccio is disarmingly frank as he describes the social breakdown of the plague years: desperate to survive, people abandon their sick friends and family, leaving the afflicted to die alone or be exploited by others. Corpses pile up in the streets and get tossed into mass graves. Amid this carnage, ten pilgrims—three men and seven women—retreat to a country villa and agree to spend ten days regaling one another with ten stories a day. The pestilence helps to explain the storytellers' impatience with the moral codes of the church, but it's pretty rough stuff for a comedy. The Pasolini movie opens with a character hauling a body to the top of a cliff, tossing it into the ocean below, and spitting after it for good measure.
Baena dispenses with the plague entirely; the tale of Massetto the gardener, which supplies about two-thirds of the action in The Little Hours, is pure bedroom farce. Nuto, gardener for a little convent in the Tuscan countryside, quits in exasperation because the nuns are constantly hectoring him; back in his hometown, he shares his story with the young, virile laborer Massetto, who decides to pursue the job opening, posing as deaf and deprived of speech to win the sisters' sympathy. Once Massetto is installed as the new gardener, the horny nuns begin leading him out to the orchard or into their bedrooms for sex, convinced that their secret is safe with him, and before long he's servicing the entire cloister, so exhausted from his nighttime activities that he can barely complete his chores. Baena tweaks this scenario slightly—now Massetto (Dave Franco), fleeing a cuckolded husband in a neighboring town, is recruited for the charade by Father Tommasso (Reilly), the nuns' priest and confessor—but it still culminates in the bawdy fun of supposedly pious young women clamoring to lose their virginity.
Whether or not Baena does right by Boccaccio, he definitely does right by Aubrey Plaza, his girlfriend and indie comedy's reigning queen of mean. Plaza's comic persona is so heartless and sarcastic that no sane producer would place her at the center of a conventional romantic comedy, but as the furious, foulmouthed novice Sister Fernanda, she nearly walks away with The Little Hours. "Why are you making eye contact with us?" she demands of the harried gardener. "Look at the fucking ground, you pervert!" When Massetto, just arrived at the convent, presumes to smile at the sisters, Fernanda flies at him with an ax; informed that he can't hear or speak, she grudgingly relents, but not before screaming in his ear. Baena turns the sacrament of confession into a running gag, with Father Tommasso underreacting to various squalid revelations, yet Fernanda shows up with nothing on her conscience. Pressed to atone for some small infraction, she turns the situation around so that the priest is the one at fault.
Fernanda's rage powers a story in which the convent begins to feel like a prison of the soul. Sister Alessandra (Alison Brie of AMC's Mad Men) longs for a romantic relationship with a man, but her father (Reiser), a benefactor of the convent, keeps her cooped up there to avoid raising a dowry. "You're stuck here with all these bitches, and so am I!" she exclaims to Massetto. Sister Genevra (Kate Micucci of Don't Think Twice) compulsively rats out her fellow novices to the abbess, Sister Marea (Shannon), but in the course of the movie she discovers that she's attracted to women (including Fernanda, who spends the night with her and then laughs off their encounter in the morning). All three women listen intently when Fernanda's secular friend, Marta (Jemima Kirke), raves about the pleasures of being with a man. Soon afterward, Alessandra hikes up her skirt for Massetto in the orchard, and Marta and Fernanda steal into his hut one night for a forced threesome, Fernanda holding a knife to his throat.
If this seems mildly scandalous now, imagine what readers in 14th-century Florence must have thought of Boccaccio's rutting nuns. The Decameron is full of women acting on their own physical needs, the church be damned. The other, shorter story that Baena attaches to the Massetto tale focuses on the abbess of a convent who polices her nuns for sexual mischief even as she entertains a priest every night in her room. The Little Hours climaxes (so to speak) with Sister Marea bursting out of her quarters and catching her three novices in the hall with Massetto; in her haste she has accidentally donned not her habit but Father Tommasso's pants. Baena reinforces this sense of sexual independence with his character Francesca (Lauren Weedman), wife of the pitiless Lord Bruno (Nick Offerman in the movie's second-funniest performance). Francesca can't keep her hands off Massetto, and as he later reveals in his confession to Father Tommasso, she craves a lot more than the missionary position.
The Little Hours comes off as pretty edgy, but it doesn't edge quite as far out as the Decameron, dropping Boccaccio's denouement in which the nuns all conspire to keep the scandal quiet and Massetto grows to a ripe old age as the convent's steward, servicing and regularly impregnating the women. "He generated a large number of little monks and nuns," Boccaccio tells us, "but the matter was so discreetly handled that no one heard anything about it." That cryptic statement may be more disturbing in the 21st century, when the church's abuse of children has become an ongoing scandal, than it was in the 14th, when people were concerned with repopulating Europe. In any case, Baena points the story in a different direction, with Fernanda beginning to explore the occult as an alternative worldview. She may not know what she's looking for, but as Spike Lee wrote, she's gotta have it. v