You have to give a movie credit for earning the Catholic League's condemnation for being "pure trash." Jeff Baena's period comedy The Little Hours cheekily wears this designation on its sleeve for its contemporary treatment of Giovanni Boccaccio's 14th-century book The Decameron. Filled with lustful nuns, pagan rituals, lesbian awakenings and enough sin to wear out a priest at confession, perhaps what the Catholic League doesn't get is that Baena's film is inspired by the source material's ribald tales of lust, humor and redemption (hey, they were going through a plague!). The difference in The Little Hours is that the dialogue (spat out by an all-star cast, including Baena's real-life partner, Aubrey Plaza; Kate Micucci; and Alison Brie) is spoken with cuss words, Valley Girl dialects and modern-day conversational English. It's a hilarious contrast to its medieval setting, immediately telling you these characters are going to dive wantonly into its brilliant sexual farce territory. Hallelujah!
The film centers on an Italian convent in the 14th century and the lives of the youngest nuns, Fernanda (Plaza), Genevra (Micucci) and Alessandra (Brie). While Fernanda and Genevra squabble about chores, Alessandra hopes to one day leave the convent and become someone's wife. One day after prayer, the nuns mercilessly abuse the convent's day laborer enough to make him quit. Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly, a welcome anchor for this irreverent crew) meets Massetto (Dave Franco, Brie's real-life husband), a servant who is on the run for cuckolding his master. Tommasso hires Massetto as the new day laborer, but he tells everyone Massetto is a deaf mute to avoid any trouble with the nuns. However, Massetto's good looks ignite Alessandra and Fernanda's randiness, and soon the young stud finds himself having a hard time turning down their advances.
Often called a "nunsploitation" film, The Little Hours leans on its joke of f-bomb-spouting nuns a little too much at times, but there's plenty of situational comedy to round out the film's humor. The scene in which Tommasso hears Massetto's detailed, sexual dalliances with his master's wife in confession is comedy gold, as is Genevra's belladonna-induced freakout, as she runs naked and screaming through the convent halls (Micucci, to me, is the revelation of this film). Fred Armisen inspires some laughs by his mere appearance alone, and he puts his brief screen time as Bishop Bartolomeo to good use. Plaza (who's also a producer) delivers her signature deadpan as the resident party girl. The film's most brilliantly choreographed moment is the Benny Hill-like scene in which Massetto and Alessandra quickly re-dress to avoid being caught in a compromising position by an elderly nun.
The idea for The Little Hours came from Baena's college days, when he minored in Renaissance studies at NYU. Boccaccio's tome was assigned reading for his Sexual Transgression in the Middle Ages class, and the future director was impressed with how the book's humorous situations and jokes held up. The script is loosely based on the source material, but the dialogue was mostly improvised by his dream ensemble (Baena has stated before that he casts his comedian friends in his projects). One thing the writer/director did stay faithful to was the setting's historical accuracy: from the costumes to the locations to the soundtrack (choral arrangements by La Reverdie and the King's Singers, as well as Hildegard von Bingen), the idyllic production design balances the hilarity more than any other period comedy before it.
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The only quibble I really have with The Little Hours is its abrupt ending. From the beginning we're set up to believe Alessandra will find her freedom from the convent, but she does not. At best, the rushed ending is confusing—as well as a clear indicator that I really want to see more from these characters. And with a cast that also includes Nick Offerman, Paul Reiser, Molly Shannon, Adam Pally, Jemima Kirke, Lauren Weedman and Paul Weitz, can you blame me? There'll probably be some stiff penance for indulging in this kind of pure trash, but The Little Hours is totally worth it.
The Little Hours was written and directed by Jeff Baena; and stars Alison Brie, Dave Franco, Kate Micucci, Aubrey Plaza and John C. Reilly.