In the 14th century, well before “The Beguiled,” both the Sofia Coppola and the 1971 Don Siegel version with Clint Eastwood, Boccaccio wrote a story about a man entering a cloister of repressed women and unleashing sexual anarchy. Pier Paolo Pasolini included Boccaccio’s story in his adaptation of “The Decameron,” also in 1971, and let’s not forget to mention Ken Russell’s diabolical and savage extravaganza “The Devils” that same year, which incidentally saw the rise of the so-called “second wave” of feminism. Jeff Baena’s attempt to revive the material in “The Little Hours” tries to keep it fresh and relevant to our times but also true to its origins.
The first scenes do not bode well, suggesting warmed-over Monty Python. In a bucolic if rough-hewn convent, the limpid, Tuscan countryside backed by faux-medieval music, sweet-looking young nuns unleash vicious 21st-century vulgarities on their hapless handyman. They gossip and snipe about one another in language that today would be texted.
But soon they shape up from stereotypes to distinct, often nasty, but comic and endearing characters.
They include Sister Fernanda (expert eye-roller Aubrey Plaza), who seems the savviest, most cynical, and fed-up of the bunch; Sister Alessandra (Alison Brie), relatively pampered because her father is a convent patron, but despairing of ever gaining the relative freedom of an arranged marriage; and Sister Ginevra (Kate Micucci), a furtive and mournful snitch and moper. Overseeing this fractious bunch is the harassed Mother Superior Sister Marea (Molly Shannon) and the incompetent and lovable Rev. Tommasso (John C. Reilly, one of the great comic actors of our time).
Things change drastically when Tommasso replaces the abused hireling with sweet-natured, submissive, and salacious serf Massetto (Dave Franco), on the run after cuckolding his previous master (Nick Offerman). To protect Massetto from the vicious tongues of the sisters, Tommasso tells them that he is a deaf-mute.
Lots of opportunities for bawdy and irreverent laughter there, and the film manages to be both crudely hilarious and bluntly satiric while also establishing sympathetic characters, a sharp contemporary wit, a sly, dry absurdism (did you see the turtle with the candle on its back coming? I didn’t) and a “Handmaid’s Tale”-like subversiveness. True, it does include a gratuitous nude witches’ Sabbath, but when it comes down to protecting their own and fulfilling their desires, these nuns can turn their black habits into superheroic, ninja robes.
THE LITTLE HOURS
Written and directed by Jeff Baena, based on stories from Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron.” Starring Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Kate Micucci, Dave Franco, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Nick Offerman. At Brattle Theatre. 90 minutes. Rated R (for graphic nudity, sexual content, and language).Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.