Most cinematic treatments of nuns display them as spectres. Whether plagued with doubt or at the height of piety, they seem to float through life, somehow removed from the effects and consequences of the real world. In Pedro Almodóvar’s Dark Habits, a failing convent in search of funds takes in a nightclub singer, who is on the run after her boyfriend overdoses on heroin in her apartment. With keen dark humour, Almodóvar unpacks the complicated, if not impossible, relationship that institutionalized religion has within modern society. The eccentric habits of the few religious members who populate the nearly abandoned convent are echoes of the institution’s bustling past. Founded with the mission to help “fallen women,” the nuns have now taken on the mantle themselves, adopting all sorts of vices to fight the boredom of their increased irrelevancy.
The idea of fallen women in cinema has long fascinated me. Like a recurring fever dream of plummeting to your death, as a child, I couldn’t quite grasp the metaphor of the spiritual fall from grace. I also couldn’t understand what made women more likely to be afflicted than men. In Dark Habits, Almodóvar plays with the idea of grace and the contradictions that inhabit the women living under the pressures of religious morality. The nuns, living in a crumbling convent, have taken to drugs, smut and latent lesbianism; their walls are decorated with movie stars — great “sinners” — because those who have fallen are often the closest to God.
Dark Habits may take on the guise of nunsploitation, but the film has little in common with the exploitative genre of ecstatic nuns tortured by temptation. Almodóvar also seems to have very little interest in using his religious subjects as a means of exposing hypocrisy. Revelling in the moral failures of his characters does not seem to be a concern; often times, Almodóvar’s very best moments come from people forced into morally dubious situations. His direction lovingly charts his characters through their most dramatic episodes, as they embody a twisted nobility in their darkest moments.
The film operates like a high key sitcom, where camaraderie overrules plot contrivances. However, unlike the pithy misunderstandings of American primetime television, character development overrules the drama of sex, drugs and money. There is a poetry in how Almodóvar seems more interested in the cult of personality than moral trials. He loves people, and the more outrageous the better. His camera captures the realness of people who don’t conform to “normal” society, rendering their refusal or inability to adjust to social expectations into sainthood. Rather than mourn or celebrate the death of institutionalized religion in the contemporary world, Almodóvar frames the convent as a safe house for women out of step with normal life. To live in such a place in this day and age requires a certain amount of madness, exemplified by either a desire for escape or a need for communion. Dark Habits has a strange optimism, a respect for the strangeness of devotion.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.