The sleeper success of Sister Act this summer came as a shock — at least, to everyone except the millions who simply liked the movie and passed the word on to their friends. The competition seemed too fierce; the production was plagued with ill will between Whoopi Goldberg and studio executives; above all, this was a comedy about nuns, and Hollywood has struggled for years with the conundrum of how to make an entertainment about women whose lives are built around shunning worldly fluff. Now that Sister Act is on video, it seems a good time to take stock and see what movies have and haven’t kept the faith.
Films about nuns fall into two genres: Good Sisters and Twisted Sisters. Catholics won’t be renting anything in the latter category, obviously, but there’s still worthy stuff here for open-minded videophiles. The films that aim merely to offend are easy to winnow out: Ken Russell’s notorious The Devils is mighty bad acid about a 17th-century order of nuns who riot orgiastically to prove they’re possessed by priest Oliver Reed; Nasty Habits casts Glenda Jackson, Geraldine Page, and Sandy Dennis in a Watergate allegory that might have made an okay Saturday Night Live sketch; Pedro Almodóvar’s Dark Habits has Carmen Maura as a bongo-playing coke-head sister but is too ramshackle to have any real anticlerical bite.
Movies that responsibly try to portray darker impulses in nuns are even fewer. Agnes of God sets up a potent situation about a demented nun (Meg Tilly) accused of infanticide but settles for showy melodramatics between Tilly and costars Jane Fonda and Anne Bancroft. The only one of these films on tape that manages both to entertain and to stir is Michael Powell’s Black Narcissus, a Technicolor stunner in which British nuns in a remote Himalayan outpost find their imaginations and emotions inflamed by thin air and the presence of a hunky neighbor (David Farrar). Deborah Kerr turns in one of her best performances as the sister superior, but Kathleen Byron steals the show as a sister tilting head-long into madness.
Good Sister movies — the ones out of Hollywood, anyway — are concerned more with humanizing nuns than demonizing them. The blueprint here is 1945’s corny but still fairly effective The Bells of St. Mary’s, in which feisty Mother Superior (Ingrid Bergman) coaches slum kids on pugilism. In 1959 Audrey Hepburn starred as a medical missionary distancing herself from her vows in the portentous 2.5-hour The Nun’s Story, and 1966 offered the gruesomely chipper Debbie Reynolds as The Singing Nun, trying to decide whether God really wants her to sing ”Dominique” on a world tour. Leave it to the French to get it right, then, with the stark, minimalist, and deeply affecting Thérèse, about a real-life Carmelite (played by the radiant Catherine Mou-chet) who died of tuberculosis and was later canonized for her simple, tranquil goodness. Here, for once, the notion of nuns as ”brides of Christ” is examined in all its spiritual, philosophical, even erotic aspects.
So where does Sister Act fit in? Actually, it’s part of a Good Sister subgenre in which wacky outsiders make life tough for the devoted. The awful Trouble With Angels started the ball rolling, with a bratty schoolgirl (Hayley Mills) bedeviling a somber mother superior (Rosalind Russell); years later, Nuns on the Run got petty hoods (Eric Idle and Robbie Coltrane) to a nunnery in drag with far more belly laughs.
Sister Act takes its cue from Run; this time, it’s a showgirl (Goldberg) hiding out from a mobster boyfriend (Harvey Keitel) in a rundown urban church, where she teaches a few Motown tricks to the sisterly choir. But for all of the amiable sitcom yuks — which admittedly seemed refreshing next to artsy-fartsy Batman Returns in theaters — Sister Act looks fatally mild on video. Seeing the movie without an audience reveals its hollow timidity about offending either paying believers or nonbelievers. Even Nuns on the Run, by wringing comic mileage out of Coltrane’s eternal Catholic-boy guilt, addressed the basic seriousness of what these women do. Sister Act, on the other hand, is so nervous about the G-word that it presents nuns simply as jovial eccentrics who dress like penguins. That may be good enough for a $2.50 rental, but if it’s the best modern Hollywood can come up with on the subject, it’s time to kick the habit. Sister Act: C The Devils: D+ Nasty Habits: C- Dark Habits: C Agnes of God: C+ Black Narcissus: A The Bell’s of St. Mary’s: B- The Nun’s Story: C+ The Singing Nun: D+ Thérèse: A The Trouble With Angels: D+ Nuns on the Run: B