Let’s get this said right off the bat: The Little Hours is not going to be a movie for everyone. It is a lewd, crass comedy that irreverently skewers medieval Catholicism with such casual glee that it’s hard not to see the film as an indictment of how Catholicism hasn’t moved on much since the Dark Ages. However, I must disclose that, as someone who was raised in a Catholic household and has always found the ritualism and dogma of that sect as a poor fit to my sensibilities, I found The Little Hours to be an absolute riot.
In a remote nunnery in the 1300s, three young nuns, Alessandra, Ginerva, and Fernanda (played by Alison Brie, Kate Micucci, and Aubrey Plaza, respectively), struggle with the daily mundanity of their lives and the isolation inherent in their situation. However, things change when the overseeing Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly) brings to the convent an apparent deaf-mute named Massetto (Dave Franco), whom each of the three nuns begin to lust after as the only eligible man for miles, though each for their own unique reasons. Little do they know that Massetto is neither mute nor deaf, and is instead a man on the run from a noble lord (Nick Offerman) who wants to kill Massetto for sleeping with his wife.
Most of the film’s comedy comes from an anachronistic use of modern vocabulary and ironic emphasis to draw contrast between our understanding of the time and the interactions being presented. It’s a story of three horny nuns whose introduction to a rogue element corrupts their thin senses of propriety, but instead of treating that betrayal of their faith as a condemnable sin, The Little Hours revels in their honesty and paints their actions as absurdist satire of the Catholic Church’s self-righteousness. A prominent scene features a bishop (Fred Armisen) reading off a list of the sisters’ sins which still are still canonically recognized as such by the Catholic Church to this day, but the audience has just spent the film’s runtime laughing and reveling at those very sinful antics. This draws a line between a modern, progressive understanding of morality and the archaic morality of outdated religious practice, and it does so to great comedic effect.
Even leaving the textual and subtextual messaging aside, though, the performances on display demonstrate each player at the top of their game. Writer-director Jeff Baena may have based his screenplay on a novella from The Decameron, but he structured his narrative around the improvisational abilities of his actors, and every single one of them delivers comic gold that is at once period appropriate and modernly inspired. Even the lines that were clearly scripted pack an equally hilarious punch; if nothing else tickles your funny bone, there is a gag involving a turtle that absolutely kills.
The Little Hours is sure to offend the sensibilities of the most pious and Catholic of viewers, but this wasn’t really a film made for them anyway. As an ex-Catholic, I will fully admit that I am a member of this film’s target audience, and it works spectacularly at being the biting satire it hopes to be. This could have come across as merely an extended too-racy-for-television SNL sketch, but there’s enough operating under the hood to make this film a sly bit of subversive commentary. If debauchery be your thing, this is a film for you.