All too often it seems too much to ask that a film be both funny and stylish, which is why Jeff Baena’s “The Little Hours” is so immediately striking. With a camera roving about the Italian countryside in medieval times, panning and zooming in moves cinematographer Quyan Tran has suggested were inspired by Robert Altman, but suspiciously look equally influenced by the sex epics of Jess Franco, the third feature from the director of “Life After Beth” is about as wily visually as it is witty, armed with a chameleonic score from “Beasts of the Southern Wild” composer Dan Romer that manages to be era-appropriate and completely original.
As Mel Brooks knew, these stylistic flourishes are the only way a film as deeply silly as “The Little Hours” could work, but the rewards are ample when it does and while at first it would seem the film about a group of sex-crazed nuns is a one-joke affair when Sisters Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza) and Generva (Kate Micucci) curse out a lecherous gardener (Paul Weitz) in their idyllic convent in Garphanana nestled in the hills of rural Tuscany in incongruously modern parlance, fortunately Baena has something far, far weirder up his sleeve. Envisioning the monastery run by a mostly ambivalent Father Tomasso (John C. Reilly) and a kindly Mother Superior (Molly Shannon) as a home for desperate outcasts, all eager to get into the sacramental wine supply to drink away the loneliness, the film turns on the recent arrival of Massetto (Dave Franco), a farmhand banished from his previous liege (Nick Offerman) in Lunigiana after having a secret affair with his wife (Lauren Weedman) and upon lending his hand to Tomasso during his escape, gets invited to the convent with the suggestion that he pretend to be a deaf mute, given his sexual history.
Needless to say, that becomes less an impediment than part of the attraction for the nuns, particularly Sister Alessandra (Alison Brie), who spends her days knitting after being left at the convent by her father (Paul Reiser) who couldn’t afford to support her financially any longer. As she, Fernanda and Generva each start to corner Massetto to get laid when he’s attempting to lay low so as not to be sent back to Lunigiana, the women’s approach is shaped by a desperation specific to the reasons that brought them to Garphanana in the first place, and Baena, who is known for casting large ensembles and allowing them to play to their strengths by reworking the intent of a scene in their own voice, gets surprisingly nuanced dramatic notes out of his leads in addition to their usual comic brilliance. While there is no end to the parade of recognizable faces who find their way to this remote convent, including Fred Armisen as a visiting bishop and Jemima Kirke as a mysterious night visitor of Sister Fernanda, the film never feels as if it’s stunt cast and only pushes it in strange and intriguing new directions.
Although “The Little Hours” goes pretty far out, it is held together by a cohesive vision, not only stylistically distinctive, but limned with a certain bittersweetness that makes all the rolls in the hay – sometimes literally – all the more thorny. In a film where copious amounts of alcohol and Belladonna are consumed, it’s the well-prepared cocktail of ennui and bawdy humor that’s the most intoxicating.
“The Little Hours” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play at the Sundance Film Festival twice more on January 24th at 11:59 pm at the Library Center Theater in Salt Lake City and January 26th at 11:45 pm at the Egyptian Theatre.