Matt Katz: That, of course, was one of the many musical numbers from the hit 1992 movie, Sister Act. Sister Act stars Whoopi Goldberg as Deloris Wilson, a lounge singer placed in a convent as part of the witness protection program after witnessing a murder. At the convent, she ultimately takes over the choir, infusing traditional hymns with gospel and rock and roll vibes.
Matt Katz: Sister Act is far from the first or last movie about nuns. From horror films, like 2018's The Nun to the nunsploitation films of the '70s, Hollywood has a habit of depicting the lives of nuns on the big screen. For more on this, I spoke with Alissa Wilkinson, film critic and culture reporter at Vox, and asked her why we're so obsessed with nuns, pop-culturally speaking.
Alissa Wilkinson: You can look way back in film history and see movies about nuns being very popular. You could think of Black Narcissus in 1947 or of course The Sound of Music in 1965. Recently there's been a peak of those. I think some of that is due to the other nature of the life in a convent. It feels almost aspirational in some ways where it's a quiet place, it's a closed-off place, it's a place full of women who are mainly interacting with one another without a huge need to interact with men. Certainly, in history, that's been the appeal.
Telling historical stories or present-day stories about nuns gives us a whole different setting in which to explore all kinds of genres, horror, drama, comedy, sometimes raunchy comedy, really meaningful and contemplative dramas. All of that takes place really beautifully in a convent and gives us a new way to look at those stories.
Matt Katz: Could you click off some of the classic pop-cultural content focused on nuns through the years? You mentioned Sound of Music, but what are some of the others that we all know?
Alissa Wilkinson: Sure. As I said, the Black Narcissus, the 1947 Powell and Pressburger movie is really wonderful if you've never seen it. I just rewatched it, I couldn't believe how prescient it felt. That one's been remade a couple of times. It has some really incredible effects, that are circa 1947. Horror has always been interested in nuns as well. The Devils, Ken Russell's movie is one that people talk about a lot. Even recently, horror has been really interested in nuns. Some people might remember that just a few years ago, The Conjuring did a movie called The Nun, that was in their universe. That's very much there.
Then also there was a whole genre of nunsploitation in the '70s, which is exactly what it sounds like. It was movies that often were very interested in sexuality and also in revolting against the male-driven hierarchy of the church. Those did pop up in Europe a lot, but in Japan as well, where Catholicism never was the dominant religion, but people read those as a way to react against a would-be colonizing force. This has been true for many years, but there definitely is a discernible uptick, I would say, in the last 10 years or so, partly just because there's so much rich possibility within the convent.
Matt Katz: Sure. What power do nuns wield, as you write in your Vox piece? Are they inherently threatening to male authority?
Alissa Wilkinson: It's interesting. I should say off the top, I'm not personally Catholic, but I certainly have spent a lot of time with people who are vocationally Catholic. An interesting thing about nuns is that they are self-governing within the convent. There's a lot of richness to the life there, and there's a hierarchy there, and submitting to one another, and deciding how their days are going to go, and what work they're going to do, but they're still in the male hierarchy of the church. Certainly, in Catholicism, the bishops, and the priests, and the Pope are all men.
There's this interesting tension that I think is attractive to a lot of filmmakers. Whether or not the representation of it is based in reality is certainly a question for the women themselves to answer, but there's certainly an appeal to that tension between here are women who are religious, who are leading religious services amongst themselves, who are performing religious duties and have a certain amount of power. Yet they still can't perform the sacraments. There's an interesting tension there to be explored.
Matt Katz: What about the more recent movies that have come out? What is the film Benedetta about, and how do nuns factor in there?
Alissa Wilkinson: Benedetta is very much a nunsploitation movie, latter-day. It's Paul Verhoeven who gave us Showgirls and RoboCop and movies like that. We expect that from him. He actually has a long-running interest in religious life and in Jesus, he was part of the Jesus Seminar and has written a book about Jesus. Benedetta actually takes, I think, some of his ideas about Jesus about maybe not being supernatural, but being able to use the system to rebel against prevailing authorities.
He places this in the world of a 17th-century nun who really did exist, Benedetta Carlini. She joined a convent, she became the abyss and a mystic and an outcast. Rome was not pleased with her. She was also notorious for having this relationship with a younger nun, Bartolomea who is also in the film. The film is really about confronting authority. It's also very obviously provocative and certainly would be offensive to some people, but it is also very funny. If you're into Paul Verhoeven, it's the movie that he was born to make.
Matt Katz: Tell me about the book Matrix by Lauren Groff, which has gotten a lot of buzz recently.
Alissa Wilkinson: Terrific, terrific novel. Lauren Groff writes these incredible novels. This is not at all related to the Matrix movies, I should make this very clear. Instead, it's about another real woman, Marie de France, who was a 12th-century nun. We don't know a ton about her, but what we know about her, we know through her poetry. We know certain things about her life. She was a prioress at a abbey, and she's a medieval woman who Lauren Groff imagines as this revolutionary.
She was able to take a convent that was basically in disrepair and everyone was dying in it and turn it into this force- They grew their own food, they eventually built a maze around the convent and they became very, very troublesome to the authorities. She renders this through Marie's eyes. It's quite an incredible book to read. The writing is really, really great, but it's also this picture of almost radical separatist nuns in the 12th century, which is wild to read and reminds us that this tension has always been there.
Matt Katz: Alissa Wilkinson is a film critic and senior culture reporter at Vox. Really appreciate you coming on The Takeaway.
Alissa Wilkinson: Thank you.
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