A scene from “The Little Hours.”

Is ‘The Little Hours’ a big deal for Catholics?

(RNS) More than 53,000 petition signatures calling for its cancellation.

Over 3,000 letters of protest in less than one week.

An article imploring Catholics to stay away.

These may seem like signs of trouble for Jeff Baena’s comedy "The Little Hours," but they haven’t really made a dent.

The movie, which opened Friday (June 30) and stars Aubrey Plaza, Alison Brie and Dave Franco, is a farce depicting the life of nuns in a medieval Italian convent.

While its strong Rotten Tomatoes score reflects mostly positive reviews from professional critics, the film — whose trailer alone is filled with nudity, f-bombs and sexual activity — has been deemed “a bomb” by the Catholic League.

“(People would) be better off watching a last-place team in baseball before they waste their time going to see this,” Catholic League President Bill Donohue said of the movie, which he hasn’t seen in its entirety. “Quite frankly, it's juvenile.”

In decades past, statements like these from a Catholic organization could easily impact the success of a film or even alter its content. But Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University, said the influence of the church’s opinions has become more complicated.

“Back then, we were a much less fragmented society," he said.

One person who said he didn’t expect this backlash was Baena, the director, who said he had no intentions of offending the church. As someone who studied the era in college, he said his goal was to stay accurate to the texts. His movie is inspired by stories from 14th-century Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron," which was condemned itself many times throughout history.

“I think it's sort of disingenuous to try to pretend that people in the past were somehow perfect and we are the problem,” Baena said. “I think, ultimately, everyone's flawed ... and I would just hope that the church remembers that, because that's sort of their bread and butter. Catering to human beings, not angels.”

Inspired by director David Lynch’s decision to advertise “Lost Highway” using a bad review, Baena decided to adopt the quote “trash, pure trash” for his film's posters and trailers.

Even Donohue said he found Baena’s decision “kind of hilarious.”

“The Little Hours” movie poster

“They're in the business to market their movie, and sometimes the enemy is a good marketer for you,” Donohue said.

One voice mostly absent from the conversation has been that of a nun.

However, Sister Rose Pacatte, a writer for National Catholic Reporter, did see "The Little Hours" the day before its release and came away with a mixed review. While she called it an “elegant farce” and found certain parts entertaining, she doesn’t recommend the film as a whole.

“I don't think the general Catholic public will even be interested, frankly,” she said. “Why would they be? There's so much nudity and sexuality in it.”

Despite what the press may imply, Jim McDermott, a screenwriter and Los Angeles correspondent for America Magazine, said, the publicized complaints represent only a fraction of the Catholic population. In fact, America gave the film a fairly positive review.

“Actually I feel bad for him (Baena) because somebody like that might think all Catholics are really angry. ... That’s not accurate. I don't think most Catholics know about the film, other than maybe that Aubrey Plaza's in it."

Faithful Viewer logo. Religion News Service graphic by T.J. Thomson


  1. Please, please, please, can people not quote Donahue. He does NOT speak for Catholics, Catholicism, and many people including myself find him too controversial. There are other people in the the Catholic faith, that one could interview/quote.

  2. Thank you for promoting Donohue’s views.

    As much as some embarrassed Catholics would like us to think otherwise, he is not some random yahoo. He is the president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, the largest Catholic advocacy organization in the US. According to the Encyclopedia of American Religion and Politics, the Catholic League is “the preeminent organization representing the views of American lay Catholics.” He has never been denounced by the Vatican or the US Conference of Bishops.

    All this is a long way of saying that the boorish and offensive right-wing extremist Donohue does, in fact, speak for American Catholics and it is entirely appropriate for the media to quote him on Catholic issues.

    To paraphrase Fictionalized Mark Zuckerberg in the film The Social Network:

    “If you moderate/progressive Catholics were really the voice of American Catholicism, you’d be the voice of American Catholicism.”

  3. Not fair, Madeleine Buckley, you didn’t get a pro-“The Little Hours” Catholic film critic’s reaction. Just the thumbs-downer ones like “Catholic League President Bill Donohue” and “National Catholic Reporter”‘s “Sister Rose Pacatte”. You did interview her, so hers isn’t really the “one voice mostly absent from the conversation … that of a nun”, is it now? But rather it’s the “voice mostly absent” of pro-“The Little Hours” Catholic film critics like the “ordained priest”, Eric Sundrup, S.J. in “A defense of ‘The Little Hours’: Finding grace in vulgarity”, America Magazine, June 29, 2017. You know what he said? Well, let me do the honor to the guy, but without holding my peace either, MIND. Father Eric Sundrup argues that:

    (1) “The Little Hours” debunks the “assum(ption) that all religion or depictions of religious people must be pure, clean and undefiled” – Catholics included. Never MIND Hebrews 10:22 with the exhortation, “Let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”

    (2) “The Little Hours” shatters “the dangerous impression that vulgarity disqualifies an experience from getting near the mysteries of God.” Never MIND Isaiah 6:5 with the lamentation, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.”

    (3) “The Little Hours” demonstrates the possibility of “be(ing) in love, in vows, in sin and experiencing grace all at once”. Never MIND Romans 6:1-4 with the reminder, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” – we who “have been baptized into (Christ Jesus’) death … so we … might walk in newness of life.”

    (4) “The Little Hours” values the “worth (of) risking a little blasphemy to get in touch with how we actually feel rather than how we have been told to feel” – when “entering into a relationship with God”; or “throwing ourselves at the mercy of God”; or “banking on the fact that someone, somewhere might have mercy. That is one hell of a risk.” Never MIND Luke 12:10 with the warning, “Everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him.”

    (5) “The Little Hours” proves that we, like its film “characters”, are, in fact, all “hypocrites” who’re “confused … vulgar … messed up”, yet share “some genuinely touching human moments” with each other. Never MIND Matthew 24:50-51 with the parable of “the master of (a) slave (who) will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour which he does not know, and will cut him in pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

  4. My, my! You live in a morally cut-and-dried world, don’t you? One in which nothing redemptive (the proverbial silver lining) occurs in any morally dark cloud?

    I wish you well in your search for that Utopia you seek, but will never find.

    Meanwhile, the rest of us will continue to live in the real world, the one in which Jesus became incarnate (because it’s the only world there is this side of the grave).

  5. Like I said, Chrizmart, never MIND. In your case, though, because of what you said, that’d be, Never MIND Romans 8:3-8 with the otherwise good news of salvation for you, that “for what the Law (of Moses) could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh” – i.e. “incarnate” – “and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who are according to the flesh” – i.e. your so-called “morally dark cloud”, a.k.a. “the real world … this side of the grave” – “set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”

  6. There is goodness in the world, too.

    You, and Paul, are not open enough to this and so become judgemental and condemnatory. Judgement and condemnation attract their like. But they are not attractive.

  7. (Note: I have not seen the movie. I just want to comment.) Catholics like movies that make Catholics look good, from a Catholic’s point of view. Movies with characters who claim to be Catholic, even putting on the habit, but commit mortal sin, which by definition makes them anti-Catholic in spirit, is an issue. Such so-called Catholics cause scandal and confusion regarding Catholicism, as they call themselves Catholics when they really aren’t once they commit a mortal sin.

    To note, saying that someone committed a mortal sin is tricky because it is complex and requires one to get inside the other’s mind, as well as the other’s circumstances. That being said, there are objective acts which can lead to a mortal sin, and some easily to the point where doing such acts should make one question whether it is even morally licit. The appearance of mortal sin, namely that a person does an objectively serious, morally deprave act, much less show that they seem to be committing to it or approve of it, is appalling for real Catholics, to say the least. Catholics want to be Catholics, namely better Catholics, and they want to see good examples which they can imitate which can lead them toward that goal. Making bad examples more vivid seems to have little or arguably no gain, especially when one doesn’t have to go to pictures to learn why to avoid a bad example, but high risk.

    For a Catholic to denounce an uncatholic example that is labelled as “Catholic” (even though one may have assumed that the viewers or readers know this) as not representing Catholicism is edifying, and common sense, and is for the sake of those who don’t know how to live as a faithful Catholic. Living as a faithful Catholic includes the keeping the morals.

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