In 1983, Pedro Almodóvar’s Dark Habits was supposedly rejected by the Cannes Film Festival on the basis of its anti-Catholic themes, and was slipped to the bottom of the pile the same year at the Venice Film Festival. When compared to many famous condemnations of anti-religious art, it’s admittedly a mild example but still illustrates the insidiousness of the Catholic Church and their influence over the committees of two major film festivals. The Church can disapprove of an artwork for any number of reasons because there are any number of ways to undermine their authority or offend their vast network of believers. With films being such a democratic art form and an efficient tool for mass manipulation, it is quite clear why the Church would want to censor this world of blasphemers and critics.
Dark Habits, however, is a peculiar threat, sitting in conflict with many of the films connected to the nunsploitation genre. The primary characters are a group of nuns who are confused as to what their purpose is as upholders of the Catholic Church in post-Franco Spain. They are drug-users and lovers, masochists and writers. But the most striking aspect of Almodóvar’s film is the sincerity with which these nuns behave outrageously. Their vices, whether linked to their faith or not, are explicitly human, but are made provocative by the sole fact that as persons of the cloth, their status traditionally demands that they live holier than others. There is never the sense that Almodóvar is mocking the human being. Instead, he breaks from the idea that the Church deserves reverence.
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Almodóvar displays the inherent ridiculousness of religious institutions by making light of the nuns’ humanity, in particular their capacity to fall from grace. They are introduced as members of a convent called the Humiliated Redeemers, led by Mother Superior. In line with Mother Superior’s views, the Humiliated Redeemers are given names that do not represent their individual sins, but which reflect her belief that a person cannot be saved until they realise that they are the “most despicable being ever created.” Whether or not they all actually believe this, embracing their name is enough of an indication that they subscribe to this interpretation of Catholic faith: that a person must suffer and be humiliated for God’s love. Mother Superior is a drug addict. Sister Sewer Rat is secretly a successful pulp fiction writer who appropriates the stories of the women who have come to the convent to be saved. Sister Manure pops acid tabs and practices self-harm. Sister Damned has a pet tiger, whom she treats like a son. And Sister Snake, who is given the least screen time, expresses her love for the house chaplain, the nominal leader of the convent. Beyond his general duties, such as saying mass, the chaplain behaves like an idle son or some kind of recovering addict who is given small jobs by the nuns to keep him occupied.
In Dark Habits, each nun is always seen wearing the full traditional habit, the fundamental purposes of which are to differentiate them from the general public, to maintain anachronistic gender dynamics within the Church and to preserve their modesty. However, society has reached a stage where they might as well not wear their robes, as Almodóvar has the public treat the nuns as if these distinctions are now irrelevant. Their job is no longer revered, their role within the convent is more prominent than that of the chaplain, and any hollow notions of purity are clearly invalid. This is not the reason why the Humiliated Redeemers behave the way they do, rather it reflects how Spain’s relationship with the Church has changed.
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When Mother Superior is first seen cutting lines of heroin with a prayer card in Dark Habits, she imparts her philosophy on the role of the Church and God: “It is in imperfect creatures that God finds all his greatness. Jesus didn’t die on the cross to save saints, but to redeem sinners.” These images of Mother Superior are the joke, but the character is well aware that she is a sinner. Her sexual and romantic interests are similarly and unmistakably anti-Church, but her sexuality is more a fact rather than a means to shock. The film’s intention is to humanise otherwise higher beings through provocation, but Almodóvar treats the nuns as flawed rather than corrupted. This places them in a position where, by virtue of their status, they are more human than holy. Damning the Church for any of its innumerable crimes sustains the image of an omnipotent, unshakable entity, one that has the resources to ask forgiveness and carry on. But by spoiling God’s servants with sex, drugs and doubt, films like Almodóvar’s Dark Habits show that earnestly criticising the Catholic Church’s crimes is not the only way to weaken centuries of unchecked supremacy.
Mark Seneviratne is a data analyst for an arts funding organisation and is based in Manchester, UK. He also writes for The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry, and will have a short story published for the first time in Not One of Us come October 2020. At university, he thought having a Michael Haneke poster made him edgy.