The Zookeeper's Wife

The Little Hours


In the Middle Ages, a young servant fleeing from his master takes refuge at a convent full of emotionally unstable nuns. Introduced as a deaf mute man, he must fight to hold his cover as the nuns try to resist temptation.

MPAA Rating: R

Running Time: 1h 30min

 

 never got around to reading Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron.

I had my chances; I can visualize the copy on my parents' bookshelf, squeezed in between the 10-volume set of Grolier Classics (40 abridged versions of such works as Jane Eyre, Moby Dick, and -- my favorite as a 10-year-old -- La Rochefoucauld's Maxims and Reflections) and the three-volume Bulfinch's Mythology. But while I've heard The Decameron described and cited so often that I feel like I know all about it, my only direct experience with it has been a few excerpts.

I know there are bawdy bits. But I don't think the book is quite what Jeff (Life After BethJoshy) Baena's The Little Hours suggests.

Inspired by stories in Boccaccio's book, the film is the funniest thing I've seen all year; a Monty Pythonesque romp through a 14th-century Italian convent filled with people with thoroughly modern sensibilities and timelessly human predilections. Beautifully and straightforwardly shot on location in northwest Tuscany, with the actors in appropriately period attire, the movie is nevertheless driven by millennial snark and entitlement as three wonderfully impious nuns -- Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza), Alessandra (Alison Brie) and Ginerva (Kate Micucci) -- banter and cavort. The movie won me over seconds after the opening titles when the sisters profanely rain hell on the poor convent handyman who dares to bid them "good morning."

Apparently "the pervert" is not to look at, much less speak to, them.

And yes, it's pretty much a one-note joke, watching these antique figures comport themselves in modern ways (the acting, while transposed to a 21st-century key, is actually fairly naturalistic and dry), the cast is able to sustain it for the length of the film. In one sense it's like a 90-minute Saturday Night Live skit -- but it's one that doesn't outstay its welcome.

So the sisters' constant abuse eventually causes the handyman to resign, leaving Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly) in the lurch. But fortunately, a slightly tipsy Tommasso encounters Massetto (Dave Franco), a strapping youth on the run from his master, brutal Lord Bruno (Nick Offerman), who has discovered Massetto's affair with mistress Francesca (a wonderfully deadpan Lauren Weedman). Tommasso offers Massetto the handyman's job -- and asylum at the convent -- if he agrees to pretend to be deaf and unable to speak (and therefore imperious to the sisters' verbal assaults).

Franco, with his handsome blankness concealing an impish goofiness, is perfectly cast as simple but compliant Massetto, who soon finds himself an object of desire as each of the sisters comes to him in her turn to satisfy more than curiosity.

It should be pointed out that The Little Hours is one of those films that's going to provoke a wide range of responses -- some will likely find it blasphemous, others might be underwhelmed by its reliance on the contrast between our expectations for period characters and the contemporary attitudes and language we encounter. But if you're a fan of HBO's Veep or Monty Python and the Holy Grail, you'll probably appreciate this curious little gem

-Phillip Martin