(2021) Documentary (Discovery Plus) Anita Caspary, Helen Kelley, Corita Kent, Lenore Dowling, Sheila Biggs, Clement Connelly, Pat Reif, Helene McCambridge, Ruthanne Murray, Francis J. Weber, Mary Mark Zeyen, Mickey Myers, Ray Smith, Marian Sharples, Dorothy Dunn, Daniel Berrigan, Frances Snyder, Patrice Underwood, Rita Callanan, Rosa Manriquez. Directed by Pedro Kos
Most of us think of ruler-wielding martinets when we think about nuns, dressed in habits that often made them look like giant penguins. That image was perpetuated by the media to a certain extent, but the truth is that it’s not terribly accurate and hasn’t been for many decades. The reason it is inaccurate is largely due to the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a convent of nuns in heathen Los Angeles who in the Sixties, launched a revolution of their own.
Prior to that, nuns were Brides of Christ, women devoted to service in poverty (and often in silence) and devoted to prayer and community with their fellow sisters. They were “God’s career women,” according to a newsreel from the postwar era, and that was fairly apt. Into this mix came a couple of far-reaching events. The first was the installation of James McIntyre as Cardinal of the Los Angeles diocese. A former Wall Street runner, he ran the diocese pretty much as a business, erecting a large number of schools to serve the burgeoning population of Los Angeles and staffing them largely with nuns who weren’t paid and were woefully unprepared and unqualified to teach (perhaps the reputation for torturous discipline came out of that inexperience).
The Second Vatican Council, which began in 1962 under Pope John XXIII and ended in 1965 under Paul VI, represented a seismic shift for the Church. It for the first time allowed the mass to be performed in the local vernacular rather than in Latin which prior to 1965 it was exclusively performed in; it also started a process of liberalization which, among other things, allowed nuns to decide whether to continue to wear habits or dress in more modern outfits.
This became an issue in Los Angeles largely because the very conservative McIntyre (who was likely one of the Cardinals who voted against ratifying the results of Vatican II, as it was known then) disapproved of most of the more liberal aspects of the council’s edicts. The nuns, who inhabited a garden-like convent near Hollywood, also ran a private college which didn’t fall under the Cardinal’s control; it was a liberal arts school (emphasis on the liberal) that taught art and sociology with equal fervor as it did theology.
On the college staff was art teacher Corita Kent, who was producing silkscreen art of her own, text-based pop art that reflected the turbulence of the late Sixties, largely with anti-war and social justice messages that should have been in line with the church’s teachings of peace and justice for all, but in that era the church was more rigid and conservative than it is now. Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit priest in that era, began to protest the war and racial inequality (among other things) and sisters of Immaculate Heart began to show up at protests as well (one marched with Martin Luther King at Selma). Fed up with his fractious sisters, the Cardinal began pressuring them to mend their ways until a showdown became inevitable.
I grew up in Los Angeles during that era; I do remember the run-in between Cardinal McIntyre and the sisters and it was much talked-about in Catholic schools in the era following (I was in Catholic high school in the mid-Seventies and in a Jesuit University in the late Seventies and early Eighties). So in a lot of ways, I got a feeling of nostalgia from the film that may not necessarily be the experience of others who see it, so do take that into encount when reading the rest of my review.
While most of the interviews with the aging sisters were recorded several years ago (Kent, for example, passed away in 1986). He utilizes animations created by Brandon Blommaert and Una Lorenzen that playfully reflect Kent’s graphic style and often depict McIntyre as a rampaging demonic presence, which according to some of his assistants (who were also interviewed here) was not far from the truth.
The women that we meet in the interviews are gracious but feisty; they look back with some amusement at their place in history, amazed that these women who simply wanted to be taken seriously were considered to be such thorns in the side of the church that they were at one point given a choice to return to the old ways that the sisters conducted their affairs or risk expulsion.
It is these interviews that are the heart and soul of the film, because these ladies were the heart and soul of American Catholicism, even though they (and indeed, most Catholics) didn’t realize it at the time. Their courage in the face of a powerful, intractable foe has brought bar-reaching changes, which are still ongoing today. If you ask me, the Church is in need of a Vatican III and if one should ever be called, the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart should be inspiration for the proceedings.
REASONS TO SEE: The animation is done in the style of Sister Conita’s artwork. Very reflective of its times. The nuns are lively, engaging and courageous.
REASONS TO AVOID: May have less appeal for non-Catholics.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the interview segments were conducted by Shawnee Isaac-Smith and were conducted years ago as many of the women interviewed here have passed away since.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/3/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: No Greater Love: A Unique Portrait of the Carmelite Nuns
FINAL RATING: 8/10