A packed cast of comedians star in this film about life in a Fourteenth Century convent.
It’s 1347 in Italy and a convent of nuns is being led by Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly). The nuns, particularly the extremely angry Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza), drive off the gardener and caretaker Lurco (Paul Weitz), forcing Father Tommasso to look for another one. At the same time, a servant named Massetto (Dave Franco) is kicked out of his position and ordered arrested by his master, Lord Bruno (Nick Offerman) for sleeping with his wife Francesca (Lauren Weedman). Massetto flees and runs into Tommasso, who has gotten drunk and lost the embroideries he was supposed to sell to fund the convent. Tommasso agrees to hide Massetto at the convent in exchange for being a gardener and pretending to be a deaf-mute.
Despite not being able to talk, Tommasso is soon befriended by Sister Alessandra (Alison Brie) who grows infatuated with him. One night, Sister Fernanda’s friend Marta (Jemima Kirke) appears and all of the nuns, including Alessandra, Fernanda, Sister Ginevra (Kate Micucci), and Mother Marea (Molly Shannon) get drunk while they’re being told that sex is amazing. Fernanda takes a drunken Ginevra back to her room for sex while Alessandra and Massetto start to get closer.
At one point, Fernanda kidnaps Massetto and she and Marta have sex with him, seemingly confirming him as a viable candidate for something. Ginevra is upset by this, having fallen for Fernanda. Massetto and Alessandra begin getting physical, but get interrupted by one of the elders coming into the room. Soon, Fernanda again kidnaps Massetto, this time taking him to a coven of witches in the woods who prepare to sacrifice him for a fertility ritual. They’re stopped by Ginevra, who has consumed a bunch of drugs and shows up high, but Massetto reveals that he’s not a deaf-mute while escaping. The group is caught returning to the convent by the visiting Bishop Bartolomeo (Fred Armisen), who uncovers all of the secrets, including that Ginevra is Jewish and that Tommasso and Marea are having sex.
Massetto is sent back to Lord Bruno, but is rescued by Alessandra and the other nuns. They all escape together, passing Tommasso and Marea who have likewise fled, and everyone lives happily ever after, except Bruno’s wife who is probably dead.
This movie is the most bizarre concoction I’ve seen in a while. It’s an adaptation of one of the stories from the Decameron, specifically the first story of Day 3, albeit a very loose adaptation. In the original, Massetto is a man pretending to be a mute gardener for the purpose of, successfully, seducing the nuns. It turns out that they actually choose to take advantage of him, believing that a mute won’t ever tell anyone. Unfortunately, he underestimates their desires, resulting in him having to beg for help from sheer exhaustion. He ends up begging mercy from the Abbess, who ends up keeping him at the abbey as a steward so that he can continue to service the nuns until he’s very old. That particular story, told by Filostrato within the text, would likely have been a very bawdy comedy by the standards of 1353. My favorite line is: “Madam, I have heard say that one cock sufficeth unto half a score hens, but that half a score men can ill or hardly satisfy one woman; whereas needs must I serve nine, and to this I can no wise endure; nay, for that which I have done up to now, I am come to such a pass that I can do neither little nor much.” While that’s not exactly how the film plays out, you can definitely see the influence.
A lot of the quality in the film is the dialogue, most of which sounds like contemporary speech adapted into subject matter fit for the 1300s. It helps that everyone delivering the lines are all comic geniuses, but Jeff Baena, the writer/director/husband of Aubrey Plaza also does a good job of crafting anachronistic situations that are just farcical enough to work. Granted, a lot of the secret to the movie is that it is just 90 minutes. Any longer and the premise would completely have run out.
Every performance is great, but I do have to say that Fred Armisen’s inquisition scenes basically had me floored with his delivery and quips. If you don’t get into the movie, I’d recommend going ahead and fast-forwarding to that sequence just to enjoy 5 minutes of sheer madness.
Overall, I liked this movie. Not loved, but liked for sure. What shocks me is that I hadn’t heard about it before now. Usually when something has a cast this good and I don’t hear about it, I have to assume that it was just that bad, but this actually got decent reviews. On Rotten Tomatoes the audience score isn’t great, but for a film like this that’s not surprising. It’s not going to be everyone’s taste, but if you like the people in it, you’ll probably enjoy it.
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