Based on The Decameron by Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio, The Little Hours is a dark medieval comedy from director and writer Jeff Baena (Life After Beth). At times genuinely funny and engaging, the film isn’t without its issues. The nuns go wild and although the film is set in the fourteenth century, it has a very modern take on everything. The nuns range from angry (Aubrey Plaza yells at men to not stare or talk to them quite often), to sweet with an underlying need for control, and seemingly naive yet very aware. The Little Hours is a dark comedy that may struggle to bring in mainstream audiences.
Set in fourteenth century Italy, three nuns--Alessandra (Alison Brie), Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza), and Genevra (Kate Micucci)--are serving their faith in a remotely-located convent. Alessandra, privileged in her treatment due to her father’s monetary contributions to the church, has grown tired of waiting around for a potential suitor. Fernanda spews angry words at any man who dares talk to or look in the nuns’ direction and has a secret she doesn’t want anyone to know. While Genevra has secrets of her own and is on her own path to self-discovery.
In a neighboring town, a servant named Massetto (Dave Franco) is having an affair with the lady of the house (Lauren Weedman). After the lord (Nick Offerman) finds out, Massetto is chased out of the town and finds refuge with Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly). Pretending to be a deaf-mute so as not to engage with the nuns, Massetto is then seduced on various occasions by the nuns, culminating in a harsh trip back to reality after everyone’s behavior is realized.
The film doesn’t ridicule the Christian faith so much as it focuses its lens on the imperfections of humanity and the dual lives we lead in order to come off one way to society while congruently having other desires. The convent serves itself as a box that contains a part of the nuns, while the woods beyond hold the key to their escape beyond their daily formalities. Baena really plays up the laughs, but the several lulls throughout the film temper its comedic potential. Every character in the film is unhinged in different ways and everyone is manipulative. Sometimes, in the attempts to desperately express themselves and their unrepentant “mortal sins,” the nuns’ behavior can become quite aggressive in their seduction and pursual of Franco’s character.
The Little Hours doesn’t try to maintain appearances. As the nuns become more open with their secrets and their sexual hunger satiated, the film gets more ambitious and sometimes loses its footing in trying to wrap everything up. The film is set and shot in Italy, but no one pretends to have an accent. And with a modern attitude, and modern language (a lot of the words spoken weren’t around during that century) that the film takes on, it’s no surprise that this was a conscious choice.
Ultimately, while the film is darkly comedic, it doesn’t set out to particularly hate on religion so much as to lightly imply that the more people are repressed, the more intense their human desires become. The fact that everyone is sinning in the film, right up to the priest and his affair with Mother Morae (Molly Shannon), comes off as pretty damn funny and it’s easy to see that the cast greatly enjoyed filming this movie. The Little Hours isn’t necessarily memorable film, its third act isn’t as tight as the first two, but at least there are some good laughs to be had.