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In 1965, the world’s idea of a problematic nun was Maria von Trapp: a black sheep in a white wimple who was booted from her convent for taking the odd hillside hike, enjoying a bit of a sing-along and ultimately getting jiggy with a handsome navy captain. By 1968, life had got a bit more complicated for misfit sisters, while a conflicted Catholic church struggled to contend with a decade of seismic social unrest. As civil rights and gender politics evolved, many brides of Christ found themselves torn between the advances of the outside world and the rigid patriarchy of the their church. Tracing the story of one particularly independent-minded group of Los Angeles nuns, the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Pedro Kos’ accessible, moist-eyed doc “Rebel Hearts” neatly threads a global feminist awakening through the very specific experience of a few defiant, no-longer-cloistered women.
Premiering in Sundance’s U.S. documentary competition, “Rebel Hearts” largely leaves the rebellion to its onscreen subjects. As one might expect given Kos’ résumé — which includes editing features for Jehane Noujaim and Lucy Walker, as well as co-directing 2017’s well-received “Bending the Arc” — the presentation here is polished but conventional, using stylized animation and an upbeat pop soundtrack to brighten a parade of archival talking-head interviews. (Many of the story’s principal figures, including trailblazing former nuns Anita Caspary and Corita Kent, have long passed away.) Taking a relatively broad overview of a complex, many-headed passage of history, “Rebel Hearts” misses some human specificity amid its general emotive sweep, but should prove an audience favorite on the festival circuit and beyond.
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“God’s career women” is how a vintage newsreel describes a group of nuns taking their vows. It’s a turn of phrase that puts a progressive gloss on a distinctly conservative institution, in which women lived in austere servitude — to God, in theory, but also to their male church elders. (“The nuns took the vow of poverty and we kept it,” quips one priest ruefully.) Between 1948 and 1970, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles was run with a particularly authoritarian fist by Cardinal James McIntyre, a former Wall Street runner who duly ran his flock like a business: establishing a dizzying number of new Catholic schools across the city, and staffing them with overwhelmed young nuns — many of them as unqualified to teach as they were unpaid.
Stubbornly resistant to this exploitation, however, was Caspary, Mother General of the Immaculate Heart Sisters, who owned and ran their own college in Los Feliz, outside the dour strictures of McIntyre’s institutions. A liberal school dedicated as much to art and science as to prayer and theology, its unorthodox ways amounted to blasphemy in the eyes of McIntyre — with the faith-based but brashly modern pop art of mainstay staff member Corita Kent exemplifying all he found unholy about the Sisters’ approach. To Caspary, however, they were merely ahead of the curve, anticipating inevitable change in Catholicism. Her tenure coincided with the groundbreaking outcomes of the Second Vatican Council, which sought to modernize certain Church traditions for a 20th-century public: Emboldened by this breakthrough, the Immaculate Heart Sisters collectively worked to alter the humble nun’s recessed role in the world, whether joining Martin Luther King Jr. to march in Selma or controversially voting to embrace civilian dress.
The ensuing war of words and principles between the Sisters and the Archdiocese is related through the briskly worded, frostily narrated correspondence of Caspary and McIntyre — who’s given a distorted, Babadook-like ghoulishness in the accompanying cartoon interludes by animator Una Lorenzon, herself perhaps channeling the bold forms and graphic wit of Kent’s art. Interview footage with Caspary and a large ensemble of her fellow Sisters, plus a number of McIntyre’s now sheepish-sounding associates, adds lively anecdotal color to the material — though at points, it’s hard not to wish we could zoom in closer on the individual lives caught in this institutional crossfire. Extensive time is devoted to the remarkable career of Kent — who, having died in 1986, lacks a direct voice in proceedings — though these passages mainly make the case for a dedicated biographical documentary about her alone.
Still, “Rebel Hearts” remains buoyant and infectious in the face of these structural limitations, working most effectively to convey the spirit of benevolent revolution that drove these calmly unyielding women — from familiar but still-beguiling montages of flower-power freedom to the updated peace and love of a devoted closing-credits ballad by Rufus Wainwright. Meanwhile, a less rose-colored coda points out the progress yet to be achieved: One elderly surviving Sister cites the 2017 Charlottesville rally as an example of how little has changed since her own activist days, while headlines splashed across the screen highlight the recent Vatican wars over the ordination of female priests. A sister’s work, it seems, is never done.
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