The Little Hours (2017, dir. Jeff Baena) is, as the name suggests, a modest little film dealing with some immodest nuns. The film is set at a convent in 14th century Italy and is strongly inspired by two genuine medieval tales, the 1st and 2nd stories from the 3rd day of Boccaccio’s Decameron.
Spoiler Alert: If you’re planning to see this film in the theater, you might want to wait to read this until after youv’e done so, since I discuss plot points, including the resolution of the film.
The Decameron, for those unfamiliar with it, is a medieval collection of stories with a loose frame-tale, sort of like the Canterbury Tales you might have read in your high school English class. Instead of a group of pilgrims telling stories as they head for Canterbury, Boccaccio’s ten story-tellers have fled Florence to escape the Bubonic Plague and have holed up in a villa outside the city for two weeks. To amuse themselves and to distract from the death outside, each day they take turns telling stories on a proposed theme (with two days off each week for chores and holy days), so they tell ten stories on each of ten days (hence the work’s title, ‘the Ten-Day Event’). That structure allows Boccaccio to tell a whole range of stories from the comic to the tragic to the morally instructional. The third day’s tales have as a theme something acquired or lost and regained with great difficulty.
The first tale deals with Masetto, a handsome young man who passes himself off a deaf-mute in order to take work at a monastery of 8 nuns (in medieval usage, ‘monastery’ can refer to a house of either monks or nuns). Since they think he can’t speak, the nuns decide to explore the pleasures of the flesh with him, which he’s only too willing to allow. So he becomes their stud bull, servicing the nuns (including the mother superior) so frequently that he’s exhausted. Eventually he breaks down and demands that the nuns give him a set schedule, which they agree to because they don’t want to lose him or risk him spilling their secret. So he lives there the rest of his life, keeping the nuns happy and fathering a lot of children in the process.
The second tale deals with King Agilulf and Queen Theodolinda, Theodelinda has a servant who flirts with her and eventually he beds her by deceiving her into thinking he is the king. Theodolinda is fooled, but Agilulf realizes he has been cuckolded. He follows the servant back to the chamber where all the servants sleep and manages to figure out which one of the sleeping men in the darkened room is the guilty party. He cuts off a lock of the man’s hair to identify the man the next day. But after he leaves, the clever servant uses the scissors to cut off hair from each of the sleeping servants, so that in the morning the king cannot figure out which man to punish. He warns all the servants that he knows what is going on, but does it without harming his wife’s reputation.
About two-thirds of the Little Hours is drawn from these two stories. Masetto (Dave Franco) is the horny servant not of King Agilulf, but of Lord Bruno (Nick Offerman), an obnoxious blowhard whose wife loathes him. Masetto sleeps with her, but Bruno discovers it, leading to the whole hair-cutting sequence. Realizing that Bruno is on to him, Masetto flees and runs into Father Tommaso (John C. Reilly), a drunkard priest who befriends him (leading to a very funny drunken confessional sequence).
Tommasso is the priest for a small convent filled with unhappy and rather unspiritual nuns. Alessandra (Alison Brie), Ginevra (Kate Micucci), and Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza) take out their boredom and frustration by physically and verbally abusing the convent’s male worker so much that the man quits. Tommasso introduces Masetto to Mother Marea (Molly Shannon), telling her that Masetto is a deaf-mute.
This leads Alessandra and Fernanda into having sex with Masetto, while a rather confused Ginevra (who’s probably a lesbian anyway) thinks she’s had sex with him but doesn’t really understand what sex actually involves.
Then the film leaves its source material completely. Fernanda’s friend Marta (Jemima Kirke) is part of a witch’s coven, and the two of them decide to sacrifice Masetto in a fertility ritual. But Ginevra, tripping balls on belladonna, unintentionally breaks the ritual up, thus saving Masetto and accidentally exposing the whole shenanigans at the convent to Bishop Bartolemeo (Fred Armisen), leading to a rather amusing episcopal visitation of the house in which all is revealed.
Masetto gets sent back to Lord Bruno, but the three nuns help him escape back to the convent, where everything ends happily with the assurance that all the principal characters other than Bruno will be getting a lot of sex.
The humor of the film is rather broad, in keeping with its ribald source material. Baena, who is also the screenwriter of the film, has made the amusing choice to write the characters as anachronistically 21st century in their dialog and outlook on life. Apart from Franco and Micucci, who do a lot of mugging for the camera, all the actors give rather understated performances. If, like me, you’re not a fan of hipster comedy, you’ll probably find Offerman and Armisen more grating than funny, but Franco and the nuns are well-cast for this story. Fernanda has a lot of anger and violence roiling within, Alessandra is sexually and romantically frustrated, and Ginevra is a follower rather than a leader, at least until her repressed desires explode out of her.
The film largely captures the spirit and much of the substance of medieval farces, which are often at least as bawdy as some modern comedies. In anything, the film down-plays and avoids some elements of medieval farce, which isfrequnetly far more violent, scatological, and misogynistic than its modern descendants. In the film, Masetto only sleeps with two of the nuns a total of three times, whereas in the original, every nun in the house has her way with him non-stop. So whereas modern audiences might assume the film is exaggerating medieval humor, it’s actually downplaying it a little.
Despite its comedy, which milks the contrast between its medieval setting and the contemporary-minded characters for all its worth, the film actually has a lot to say about the 14th century Italy. Late medieval authors loved mocking unspiritual clergy, and with the exception of one elderly nun, none of the women at the convent are actually following the rules (although Marea does seem to take her job seriously, apart from her affair with Tommasso). To modern audiences, the comedy is simply the contrast of supposedly pious nuns doing things such as swearing like sailors, threatening to assault people, and fornicating, but these are in fact exactly the sorts of things that many 14th century people suspected nuns actually did. Alessandra is so unspiritual, she can’t even reflect on her own sins during confession; instead she steals Ginevra’s confession by eavesdropping on it. Tommasso the drunken, bumbling priest is another staple medieval literature; one gets the sense that he would happily gossip about the confessions he hears.
The three young nuns are not in the convent because they feel a calling to the spiritual life, but because their families have put them there. Alessandra’s father is a merchant, and she thinks she’s there simply to be educated before getting married, at least until a visit from her father makes her realize that he’s probably planning on dumping her there permanently so that he doesn’t have to shell out for her dowry. Fernanda and Ginevra’s backstories are never clarified, other than a throw-away joke that Ginevra is actually Jewish, but Fernanda is played as a bored rich girl stuck at a boarding school when she’d rather be out partying with her friends (complete with a scene in which Marta sneaks into the convent and all the girls get drunk on sacramental wine and start making out with each other). To me, these characters ring true (apart from Ginevra’s Jewish ancestry) because that’s how many young women actually wound up as nuns. Alessandra’s story is played for laughs, but I’m certain more than a few young women tragically lived out exactly that story.
Similarly, the bishop’s visitation, a sort of trial in which the moral failings of the nuns are revealed and punished, is played for laughs, but records of dozens of such visitations still exist for both male and female houses, and they reveal large numbers of monks and nuns who evidently found life in a monastery not to their taste. Cases of run-away nuns abound, and fornication was a regular problem, as both actual events and moralizing tales make clear. Even the lesbianism in the film can be documented in period sources. To us, The Little Hours is funny because it’s absurd, but to 14th century Italians, Boccaccio’s story is funny because it’s true.
The nuns here are bored, and take out their frustrations on those around them. They live lives of dull manual labor, although the upper-class Alessandra cheerfully dumps her laundry onto Ginevra because the latter girl is “good at it.” Alessandra is apparently good at needle-work, which gets her out of some of the drudgery, but partway through the film Marea orders her to double her production, so even her social class can’t protect her from unpleasant work. The nuns abuse their male servants for no reason other than that they can; Fernanda has a habit of pulling weapons on people. Ginevra is a tattle-tale, constantly running to Marea to reveal every minor offense her sisters make. Underneath the humor is a revealing portrait of the way many monks and nuns actually responded to their living situation. By the 14th century, most monks were likely to have actively chosen the life they were living, and were frequently permitted to leave their houses, but many nuns were there against their will, and the rule of enclosure (which stated that nuns were not supposed to leave their convents for any reason at all) meant that many of these women struggled with the mind-number sameness of their daily routine and chafed at the constant close contact with other nuns.
The film also has a sub-plot dealing with finance. The convent needs an income to support its residents. Alessandra’s father is supposed to be paying money to the convent for her, but he’s either stingy or business is going badly (as Tommasso gossips), so he’s not giving what he’s supposed to. The convent makes money by selling the embroidery of the sisters, using Tommasso as their business agent, but he drunkenly ruins one shipment by letting his cart tip into a stream. In addition to being the spiritual leader of the house, something she seems to have some interest in (to judge from the readings she delivers at meals), she’s also responsible for managing the finances of the convent, something she seems to have no talent for. Bartholemeo audits her books and apparently finds serious problems.
These were genuine issues at convents, because the rules about keeping nuns separate from men often meant that women with no business experience wound up having to make major financial decisions. In some cases, the abbesses rose to the challenge, either making good choices themselves or finding other nuns who had a head for business and thereby building their house into a financial power, but in others, poor choices produced fiscal crises that led to impoverishment.
The only truly false note in the plot (as opposed to the anachronistic attitudes) is the witchcraft element that brings the film to its climax. Although the 14th century did see the beginnings of a concern about groups of witches engaging in abominable activities, what the film shows us is straight out of a 16th century panic about witches’ covens, naked orgies, and human sacrifice (although instead of sacrificing adult men like Masetto, these post-medieval fantasies focused on the murder and cannibalism of babies). The film’s depiction of the witches also draws off of 20th century neo-pagan ideas of witches as engaging in an alternate religious system. These witches seem to be housewives and young women who are performing a “fertility ritual” of some sort, and it’s not entirely clear that they plan to actually kill Masetto. Fernanda, at least, is not the malevolent baby-killer of early modern anxiety, and Marta doesn’t seem to be either, although her motives are not developed at all. Both women are like naughty college students looking for something the conventional religion of their society does not offer them. Boccaccio does not tell stories about witches, although in one story a character describes a supposed secret society of revelers that uses some of the stock charges about witches, but which are eventually revealed to all be a prank on a gullible doctor. Far from being a believer in witches, Boccaccio seems to be a skeptic, something that is true of far more medieval people than popular imagination would allow.
The Little Hours isn’t trying to recreate a story from the Decameron. Instead, in the phrasing so loved by Hollywood, it’s ‘inspired by’ the stories. It takes whatever pieces it wants from two tales and plays with them freely, which is exactly what medieval authors like Boccaccio and Chaucer did with their source material, and what Shakespeare was going to do a few centuries later. In that sense. Jeff Baena is true to the spirit of Boccaccio, and he manages, perhaps unintentionally, to give a reasonable lesson in what life in a 14th century convent might have looked like.
Want to Know More?
The Little Hours is still in the theater, so it’s not available for purchase or streaming yet.
Boccaccio’s Decameron has more than a little in common with the somewhat more-famous Canterbury Tales, and it’s actually complete! Give it a read.
Graciela Diachman’s Wayward Nuns in Medieval Literature looks at medieval stories of bad nuns and the historical evidence for them. Similarly, Judith Brown’s Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renassance Italy looks at one particularly scandalous abbess, Benedetta Carlini, who not only had a sexual relationship with another nun but also faked visions and stigmata. She is perhaps the first well-documented lesbian in Western history.