Oh, what a virtue it is to be pious. Nothing says a life well spent like dedicating oneself to serving the Lord in isolation. Whether it’s the celibacy or the ascetic lifestyle, who wouldn’t want to rap the brass knuckles on a worn-out door of a monastery, begging to enter the graces of a merciful God? The early morning chores, the never-ending masses, the incessant wrack of guilt—sounds like a hoot! At least it did for 14th century Black Death-ridden Italy, the backdrop for Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron,” the inspiration for Jeff Baena’s charming The Little Hours.
Jeff Baena’s newest feature seldom uses the deadly disease as the catalytic event that pushes everyone to seek refuge in a remote monastery. Instead, we are directly injected into Filostrato’s tale on the third day, which tells the story of a group of nuns who cannot control their lusty, sacrilegious behavior when a strapping young gardener comes to their covenant. Sounds a lot like a bad erotica novel, doesn’t it? It certainly plays out like it at times, but that does not take away from the tale’s poignancy. Both Filostrato and Baena’s story explores people’s inherent flaws and desires—lusts cannot be quashed, even in the face of extreme social and cultural backlash.
And in today’s ever increasing sociocultural tumult, Baena’s film is a brazen attempt to bridge the gap between conservative and liberal values, telling the other side of the aisle that nothing is as simple as it seems—even in feudal 14th century Italy. In an era when people’s voices and expressions of freedom are being stifled, it seems especially prescient that much the same was occurring during Renaissance-era Italy, where art was flourishing alongside malevolent clerics who corporally punished any and all sinners.
It’s a dichotomous existence, one that points to the inherent absurdity of chastising natural habits and desires while also celebrating them in art and culture. It sounds like it may be something out of Orwellian lore, but in fact, it is a cheeky satirical look into the contrarian lives that so many of us lead. Baena’s film takes a sordid, rather intense backdrop and turns it into a whimsically hilarious comedy. Taking a cinematographic page from Robert Altman and a few dialogical notes out of Woody Allen’s playbook, Baena has constructed a touchingly clever film that effortlessly exudes 1970s-inspired absurdist sensibilities.
From the incessant uses of long takes and zooms to the continuous farcical jokes about religion, piety, and lust, The Little Hours is an arrestingly charming throwback to New Hollywood cinema. Beyond that, it seems that Baena has also taken some humanist qualities from his mentor David O. Russell (American Hustle) and contemporary Wes Anderson (Moonrise Kingdom), coalescing allegorical poignancy with a quirky cinematic style that is almost vaudevillian at times.
But that just seems to be the base of the stylization for Baena, who uses the star-studded female cast of Alison Brie (Community), Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation), Kate Micucci (Don’t Think Twice) and Molly Shannon (Other People) to showcase an Apatow-inspired comedic panache. Coupled with the casting of genre-bending legend John C. Reilly (Step Brothers), funnyman Dave Franco (Neighbors) and well-timed cameos from Fred Armisen (Portlandia) and director Paul Weitz (Mozart in the Jungle), The Little Hours packs quite a lot of humor, compassion, and charm into a curt 90-minte film.
Verdict: 5 out of 5
Jeff Baena’s The Little Hours is the touchingly well-crafted work, using its formidable cast and Commedia dell’arte sensibilities to construct a charismatic diegetic world that is as whimsical as it is horrifyingly intolerant. It’s a well struck balance, one that uses the absurdity of the church to showcase a hilariously delusional 14th century mentality. Everyone’s a contrarian, and yet those humanist flaws are forgiven and laughed at thanks to Baena’s sharp writing, charming characterizations and focused direction. The Little Hours is perhaps one of the more prescient comedies to come out in years and certainly Baena’s best feature yet. Hopefully, that critical trajectory that will only continue to rise.