One of the most unusual and mercurial comedies of 2017, The Little Hours initially sounds pretty straightforward on paper – a trio of fourteenth-century nuns, played by Aubrey Plaza (Fernanda), Alison Brie (Alessandra) and Kate Micucci (Ginevra), living in a convent run bu Molly Shannon (Marea) and John C. Reilly (Tommasso), whose lives are thrown into turmoil by the arrival of Massetto, a young labourer played by Dave Franco. In fact, the story is taken from The Decameron, where it also plays as a somewhat irreverent comedy of manners, but that irreverence is intensified here, as director Jeff Baena spends the first act continuously juxtaposing bucolic settings with flamboyant sexual profanity, in what sometimes feels a bit like a one-joke film, albeit a joke that somehow manages to remain surprising with each new retelling. That’s the premise of The Decameron as well – stories that manage to go on and on while somehow repeating the same cycle of events – and for the first part of The Little Hours if often feels as if we’re witnessing a sketch more than a film; a collection of events, characters and situations that could probably continue indefinitely with only the slightest variation or development from installment to installment.
In the process, it’s perhaps inevitable that The Little Hours erases any distance between the past and the present – at least initially – for what often plays more like a boarding school drama than anything else, since it’s clear that none of the inabitants of the convent really want to be there, and that all of them are fulfilling their duties more or less grudgingly. Critically, however, there’s no sense of them being confined, exactly, either, since the beautiful vistas are too expansive for that, just as the comic banality of it all mitigates against any sense of suffocated subjectivity. The tone is set pretty early on, when Alessandra’s father comes to visit her, and regrets that he can’t afford to provide her with a dowry, and set her free, but only because the status of his family depends on him making a regular financial contribution to the convent keeping her prisoner. For the most part, the captivity of the women tends to be framed in those more menial and managerial terms, which of course has a comic effect, but also, once again, makes the events of the film feel closer to the present day, and The Decameron itself feel positively contemporary in its vision of emergent middle-class and mercantile ennui, boredom and struggle for self-fulfillment.
While The Little Hours may adapt The Decameron in quite a startling way, then, it never exactly feels like a “parody” or “subversion” of Boccaccio’s canonical text, so much as a consummation of everything that makes it sit so uneasily within a canon of Western literature to begin with – its fragmentation, its resistance to any singular or straightforward appropriation in the name of Western exceptionality and, above all, its frank and pragmatic allegiance to a particular mode and model of middle-class experience. If there is a parody here, it’s more directed at the pastoral naturalism of 70s art cinema, and of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s adaptation of The Decameron, along with the way in which it culminates both the “literary” aspirations and medieval painterliness of 70s art cinema. For the first part of the film, that takes the form of a kind of denuded version of Pasolini’s aesthetic register, as Baena ruptures the beauty and majesty of his mise-en-scenes with one abject eruption and ejection after another, as if defying the audience to either recline upon their beauty or their abjection, let alone the peculiar fusion of the two that Pasolini made so thoroughly his own.
As the film proceeds, this fusion of profanity and beauty starts to morph into a more sustained resistance to the very idea of aesthetic tact and dexterity as masculinist and auteurist categories. In particular, Baena, and Plaza – his partner and one of the film’s producers – go out of their way to puncture tableaux of women, especially isolated women, as contemplative spectacle, reserving their most vitriolic invective for men who seek to gain pleasure from them in this way. In particular, the supposed chastneness of women as a contemplative spectacle – and the chasteness afforded to men who claim to gaze on them in this way – comes under question, as the three nuns respond so brutally to any man who even looks in their direction that the male gaze itself is unable to emerge unscathed or uncompromised in the process. Time and again, Baena implicates his gorgeous vistas in this gaze, cutting between beautiful landscapes and sequences involving the three women in irreverent and profane conversation, as if to divest the film of even the most residual analogy between the contemplative pleasures of gazing upon the natural world and the contemplative pleasures of gazing upon women in their “natural” state of life and attire.
It makes sense, then, that complications arise from the introduction of Massetto, since one of the key conditions of his employment is that he pretend to be a deaf-mute in order to discourage communication with the three sisters. For all that Tommasso assumes that this will retain the gendered status quo, however, it actually ends up disrupting it, if only because it forces Massetto to over-identify with it to such an extent that its burden becomes intolerable, even to him. By feigning deafness to the female voice over and over again, he actually ends up becoming more aware of it, especially since his inability to talk back also renders him an object of female scrutiny in the process. Throughout the second part of the film, this gradually destabilises the confessional booth as the main guardian of gendered labour in the convent, from Massetto’s confession of having performed cunninlingus on an earlier lover – a concept so foreign that Tommasso doesn’t even know how to categorise the necessary penance – to Fernanda’s refusal to confess to anything more than eating a turnip. Here, as throughout the film, Plaza’s facial expressions and screen presence works perfectly to suggest a feminine “reserve” of feeling that proper contemplation of the film can uncover, only to defuse it into a more underwhelming brand of sulkiness or surliness, or else explode and fragment it into fits of hyper-kinetic profanity.
In the third act of the film, however, Fernanda starts to take this “reserve,” and promise of feminine depth, in a different direction, thanks in large part to her growing sexual interest in Massetto, which she mediates by way of her friend Marta, who lives outside the convent and also happens to be a witch. In an utterly extraordinary scene, Marta and Fernando perform a kind of menage a trois upon Massetto, albeit a menage a trois that makes you realise how universally this tableau is enacted, in cinema, as a fantasy of male voyeurism. Here, however, it is so thoroughly dissociated from the male gaze, and from the “stabilising” shot sequence that might go with it, that the effect is one of profound and emergent sexual mysticism, culminating with Fernanda and Marta leaving Massetto as peremptorily as they find him. In this way, Baena suggests that this convent is actually the place in fourteenth-century Italy where female desire is least regulated and structured by patriarchal conventions, if only the women can use the space to their advantage, as well as the serendipitous porosities that open up from time to time between the space and the outside world, as well as within the film’s own syntax, which hovers in the uneasy space between its lavish establishing shots and the sisters’ inability or unwillingness to ever properly fill them.
If The Little Hours plays as an irreverent riff upon Pasolini’s Decameron, then, its even more irreverent suggestion is that The Sound of Music – and its vision of the convent as an incitement to liberating affect – is closer in spirit to the irreverence of The Decameron itself. From that perspective, Baena needs the comic irreverence of the first third to clear the way for a more genuine engagement with female desire, even if the film doesn’t finally play as a comedy per se. That’s not to say that there’s not a transitional period in the middle where comedy still plays a big role, as evinced in a wonderful sequence in which Massetto is forced to recline on a bale of hay three times in a row, recreating the tableau of his undisturbed body as a site of contemplative reverence for each sister in turn. Similarly, little comic interludes and touches persist right to the end, as if in an attempt to prevent the spectacle of sexual liberation ever feeling too self-serious, or approaching the sexual “seriousness” – almost universally coded as male – that characterized so much of this kind of 70s art film.
Still, the final act of the film is driven largely by sexual wonder and sexual hope, starting with the extraordinary scene in which the libidinal economy of the convent migrates into a fully-formed matriarchal cult, and the three sisters – along with Marta – tie up Massetto for a fertility ritual held in the heart of the forest. It’s in the midst of this gynoscape that Ginevra fully acknowledges and embraces her queerness, but its effects seem to ripple out across the convent as well, culminating in a scene in which we discover that both Marea and Tommasso have been having an affair this whole time as well. The result is a deep and abiding romanticism that concludes with all the characters making their way from the convent, as Baena pares back the film to a series of pregnant images of both dispersal and convergence that often reminded me of the beautiful concluding sequence to Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales, but also, of course, the end of The Decameron itself. In a beautiful final coda, and a fleeting backwards glance from Plaza, it feels as if the characters are escaping the aesthetic of the film itself, along with the legacy of the 70s art cinema so often venerated as an object of nostalgia and aspiration in our present cinematic climate, and there’s something about the way in which that flight from the present takes us further into the future that is wonderfully and irreverently true to Boccaccio too, in what may well be the best adaptation of The Decameron ever adapted for the big screen.