An ensemble cast of talented comedians isn’t enough to save this poorly executed dark comedy lampooning scandalous behavior in the Catholic Church.
This isn’t the first time in history the Catholic Church has faced criticism for corruption and sexual impropriety, and The Little Hours (2017), written and directed by Jeff Baena, wants to remind us of that. Inspired by a fourteenth century Italian satire, this film’s poor quality and lackluster performances landed dead on arrival, missing an opportunity to successfully reboot a classic tale for contemporary audiences.
At an Italian convent run by Sister Maria (Molly Shannon), three young nuns, Alessandra (Alison Brie), Ginevra (Kate Micucci), and Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza), are bored with their daily monotony and harass the elderly gardener into quitting. Meanwhile, Lord Bruno (Nick Offerman) discovers a servant named Massetto (Dave Franco) is having an affair with his wife. Massetto flees for his life, and runs into Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly), who got drunk and lost the convent’s embroidery on his way to the market.
Eager for a friend, Father Tommasso convinces Massetto to return to the convent and work as their new gardener, where he will pretend to be a deaf-mute to avoid being harassed by the sisters. Things get complicated when Alessandra, Ginevra, and Fernanda all scheme for Massetto’s affection. Is Fernanda’s strange behavior just repressed desire bubbling to the surface, or is something more sinister afoot?
The Little Hours is based on stories from The Decameron (c.1353) by Giovanni Boccaccio, an Italian Renaissance humanist. As English writer Geoffrey Chaucer did for his own country in The Canterbury Tales (c.1400), Decameron satirized life in the Late Medieval Italian states through a series of short stories told by various narrators. The Little Hours takes elements from Day Three, particularly stories one and two.
In the first story, a man pretends to be deaf and mute to gain access to a bevy of young nuns at a convent, but finds their sexual appetites overwhelming. He reveals his ruse and make a deal with the abbess to work out a regular schedule for his “services”. In the second story, a king discovers an affair between his queen and a servant, and cuts off a lock of the sleeping servant’s hair so he can identify him in the morning. The servant foils the king’s plan by sheering a lock from the other servant’s heads as well.
The Little Hours cleverly weaves these tales together with subplots about witchcraft and the forbidden love between Father Tommasso and Mother Superior. While the sets and costumes are accurate to the Medieval period, the dialog (which was heavily improvised), is not. The incongruity is more distracting than innovative. There are films that successfully update historic plays and stories with modern slang, but this instance comes across as lazy.
Something definitely misfired about this film. With such a strong cast, The Little Hours should have opened as a top billed comedy, rather than quietly making its way to Netflix. The Little Hours opened in two theaters and made $1.6 million at the box office. While critically praised, audiences gave it a mediocre reception, and it has a 48% audience rating on RottenTomatoes.
In my opinion, The Little Hours wasted the talents of its cast. Veteran comedians like John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon are barely given anything to do. There are no jokes—only a series of awkward and uncomfortable scenes and mumbled dialog. It’s like you’re watching an amateur film made by all these famous actors and actresses at the beginning of their careers. What could’ve been comedy of the year is, instead, a forgettable mess.