The bawdy story of the young servant who runs from his master and pretends he’s mute while hiding in a convent full of lusty nuns was first told by classic 14th century author, Giovanni Boccaccio. It’s one of the 100 tales written in The Decameron, a collection of stories considered a masterpiece of early Italian prose.
In 1971, director Pier Paolo Pasolini made his award-winning film of the same name and chose 9 of those 100 tales for his episodic, big screen version, including the one about the young servant. The film was heralded as something unique at the 21st Berlin International Film Festival. It won the Silver Bear Extraordinary Jury Prize. Personally, I thought it was a shambles, though clearly the members of the Berlin jury thought otherwise.
In the new American version, The Little Hours, written and directed by Jeff Baena, the young master’s story is the whole film. It’s a comedic take on what happened in that convent when a handsome young servant (Dave Franco) pretends he’s a mute handyman, hired by Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly), and is lusted upon by the young nuns. Even the title is in on the joke. On its own terms The Little Hours doesn’t mean much, but put a ‘W’ before the ‘Hours’ then look at it again. You get the idea.
With a cast full of recognizable faces, mostly from TV sitcoms but with experience honed from years of stand-up or improvisational comedy, The Little Hours is a medieval romp played straight. Imagine life in 14th century Italy, populated by present-day sitcom types, delivering their lines deadpan, absent of a laugh track; something like The Office but without the knowing side glances to the camera. Because of its period setting (captured widescreen with surprisingly outstanding cinematography by Quyen Tran) there might be a tendency to make occasional comparisons with Monty Python, but where the Python gang in Life of Brian or The Holy Grail played it intentionally broad, always aware of the humor, The Little Hours plays it poker-face; these characters have no idea how funny they sound.
Writer/director Baena has approached his script with Mike Leigh in mind. He wrote an outline, then gave his cast the task of improvising, taking the best lines from rehearsals then having them spoken in the film, not with 14th century Italy in mind but with present-day, American rhythms and slang. So when Paul Reiser visits his daughter at the convent to discuss a problem with her dowry, he tells her, “Hey, you look terrific.” And when Dave Franco is trying to tell Aubrey Plaza that he’s mute by using hand gestures but with little success, she responds, “What is that? Is that a bird? Are you praying?”
There are no jokes, no punchlines, just the consistent humor of funny things said straight. In some respects, the whole film is its own punchline. In the 14th century, many women who became nuns and lived in a country convent weren’t there necessarily to be a Bride of Christ; often they were misfits, adulterers, or those who simply never fit in with regular society, so they were shipped off by their families, hidden away, dressed in cloisters and forced into a life not always of their choosing or of their desire. Those are the nuns of The Little Hours. When Allison Brie as Sister Alessandra is observed staring off, lost in thought, the other nuns gossip. “She’s probably daydreaming about some guy who’ll magically take her away from here,” snipes Sister Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza). “Good luck,” responds Sister Ginevra (Kate Micucci).
Having John C Reilly state how boring life can be with the other guys at the monastery will raise giggles. “All they do all day is pray,” he complains. Plus, having the young nuns gather secretly together at night as though they’re college freshmen in the dorm, getting drunk on left-over sacramental wine, talking about boys, then making out with each other, is a funny idea. But nothing rises to a level higher than being simply amused.
These comedic talents might have made each other double over during the improvisational rehearsal process, but once director Baena called for calm, straight faces, then shot the scene, that same line can sound no more than diverting. When Fred Armisen as Bishop Bartolomeo (whose mere costumed appearance with wig is funny) issues a year of fasting as punishment, he finishes with, “So, pick a meal once a day, then skip it.” After a while, you may question what the film is really going for. Much will make you smile, but long before it’s over and Baena’s idea is done, that’s about all you’ll do.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 90 Minutes Overall rating: 5 (out of 10)
(Please note: The Little Hours will be playing exclusively at Valley Art Theatre, S. Mill Avenue, Tempe from 7/7/17)