A short festival on nuns

Tucking up her habit under her cincture, Sister Mary Paula hopped, skipped and jumped into the schoolyard sandpit and set this 11 year old on his lifelong fascination with nuns. But it wasn’t until I shared a house with a gay male nun, that this found its full expression in a curatorial interest in a the uses and abuses to which the arts have deployed the women in black.

Western art is obsessed with nuns. I could rattle off a hundred films in which nuns are the whole plot or central to it. There are at least five operas about them. Written tales about them have been around since Chaucer. We can’t even seem to imagine a future without them – Frank Herbert’s Dune revolves in part around the machinations of the Bene Gessirit, an order with the best habits outside of the ecclesiastical fashion parade in Fellini’s Roma.

In honour of Sister Paula, the festival opens with the flibbertigibbets who waltz on the way to Mass and hit baseballs across screens large and small. These are nuns through which we explore the transition from girl to woman, and the choices that have to me made along the way. From the old school, there’s The Sound of Music’s Maria turning from a spiritual marriage to Christ, to a secular marriage and a household of precocious children. Under the modernising influences of Pope John XXIII other options became possible, and Sister Bertrille (The Flying Nun) got to stay in the convent, wear habits that showed a bit of leg, and have a peculiarly free relationship with a womanising, casino-owning, Latin lothario.

Given the vow of chastity to which all nuns are bound, and that convents are all female domains, they become fertile grounds for the exploration of women’s sexuality and its expression. Faced with a ‘wind that never stops blowing’ through the rooms of the former seraglio of the local Maharajah, Sister Clodagh and her band of five missionaries in Black Narcissus find themselves challenged spiritually and sexually as ‘the world comes thrusting in’. Madness and death follow. In Rivette’s La Religeuse, Suzanne, forced into a nunnery by her family, becomes the object of the mother superior’s lust. The film, based on Diderot’s anti-religious novel, has been condemned as sacrilegious, prurient fiction, on a par with the plethora of nun pornography. What will Australian church leaders make of Suor Sorriso, screening at this year’s Queer Screen Film Festival, which takes over where the Hollywood schmaltz of The Singing Nun ends? Both are about the real-life Belgian postulant Janine Deckers. But where the former film is memorable for little else but the irritating song Dominique, the new film uses the 1985 double suicide of Janine and a woman companion to explore a life more travailled and habits other than of cloth.

Convents are perhaps the earliest women’s refuges. Some nuns enter convents, or are banished to them, when dalliance leads to bastard children – Verdi’s Suor Angelica. Others enter them escaping or rescued from emotional and sexual abuse. One such, Agnes of God might be a saint in the making. Stigmata, the wounds of the crucified Christ, have appeared on her hands. But Agnes bears a child, whom she kills because it like her is ‘a mistake’. It doesn’t help that Agnes believes she has had sex with God in the form of a dove. The film is a finely detailed exposition of the moral minefield that results when a ‘holy innocent’ faces both the rigour of secular law and the exigencies of a church playing politics to survive.

Brought to trial, Agnes goes free. Not because she’s dotty, but because in these enlightened times ‘The law has no interest in jailing a nun’. She is not the only nun whose body becomes the battleground of ecclesiastical and secular power. In Ken Russell’s film, The Devils, (also Penderecki’s opera and Huxley’s book ) it is the heretic and communalist Father Grandier who is the prey. However, it is Sister Jeanne’s lustful obsession for him that becomes the means to his end. The nuns in A Conspiracy of Hearts confront the horrors of the Holocaust, hiding a group of orphaned Jewish children in their convent. Discovered, they are spared death by the Italian soldiers charged with their execution. Less successful are Blanche and her sisters in Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites. At opera’s end they head off singing to the guillotine, victims of the Reign of Terror.

Given all of this, it’s not surprising that nuns, in Monica Baldwin’s famous phrase, leap over the wall – Brides of Christ, and Change of Habit (Mary Tyler Moore jumping for Elvis). But sometimes, the laity leap the wall the other way – Nuns on the Run (which also scores for men in nun drag) and Sister Act.

Finally, nuns, like other black birds, are harbingers of death. The take home message from the festival is don’t take plane rides with nuns or you’re likely to find you plane nose-diving into a terminal in a snowstorm (Airport).
Copyright (C) 2003 Paul van Reyk

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© Paul van Reyk 2019.