THE STORY – During the 1960s, a tight-knit group of progressive nuns in Hollywood discarded their habits and gleefully oversaw a radical women’s college grounded in social activism. Spearheaded by sisters Anita Caspary, Helen Kelley, and Corita Kent (also a renowned pop artist), Immaculate Heart College ensured women received degrees at an unprecedented rate and crested a tidal wave of social change that engulfed the nation. But as the nuns marched on Selma and transformed the education system, they incurred the wrath of the archbishop of Los Angeles and, with him, the church’s entrenched old guard.
THE CAST – Lenore Navarro Dowling, IHM, PhD; Rosa Manriquez, IHM; Ruth Anne Murray, IHM & Karol Schulkin, IHM
THE TEAM – Pedro Kos (Director/Writer) & Shawnee Isaac-Smith (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 99 Minutes
By Cody Dericks
There are plenty of documentaries out there covering left-leaning political trailblazers, but, to my knowledge, none of them are about nuns. The unlikely progressive heroes at the center of Pedro Kos’s new documentary “Rebel Hearts” are an obviously engaging subject. The film covers their constant struggles to make their voices heard in a male-dominated field, which provides a shockingly applicable story to any number of political movements. It doesn’t hurt that the women themselves are just as endearing and tell a surprisingly moving story.
The story of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary has a simple beginning but builds over time into one of constant resilience and defiance. What started as a simple questioning of the archaic rules and practices that dominate their lives snowballed into a radical religious movement to change the very structures of one of the most powerful forces in the world: the Catholic Church. It didn’t take long for the Sisters to expand their cause to include demonstrating and fighting for several progressive causes beginning in the 1960s and continuing through to the present day. Granted, they are now in a very different organization than the one in which they originally found themselves, and “Rebel Hearts” thoroughly details this journey.
The film effectively shows the gradual way that small questions directed toward traditions can eventually, and almost inevitably, expand into a greater interrogation of institutional practices. This is a common pattern in any political cause, such as the way the fight for racial justice has changed and grown over time, but it’s shocking to see this same occurrence amongst a group of nuns. Because of their association with such a conservative religious establishment, it’s easy to assume that they would also look at the world in a more orthodox way. But “Rebel Hearts” goes to show that when any group faces unfair treatment, it shouldn’t be considered unexpected when they fight back.
“Rebel Hearts” predominantly uses old interview footage in order for the audience to hear the first-hand story of the Sisters. I usually find that this style of documentary construction undercuts the purpose of the film by mostly using someone else’s footage and thus being constrained to their way of filmmaking. However, this film avoids this trap by breaking up the archival footage with well-edited shots of newspaper clippings, art pieces, and enchanting animated sequences that resemble construction paper. It’s also understandable in its use here since the film mostly covers events that occurred over 50 years ago and, as a dedication in the end credits shows, many of the nuns have since passed away.
The story told in “Rebel Hearts” takes about as many unexpected twists and turns as one could expect from this type of documentary. The expansion of rights and restructuring of rules eventually went so far as to include a rethinking amongst the nuns on the purpose of wearing habits and the importance of making sure the nuns are properly educated. In exploring these pushes for equality, “Rebel Hearts” does what the best of these types of documentaries can hope to do: inform the viewers while shattering the audience’s expectations.
The nuns at the center of the film speak with refreshing candor and humor about the practices and political causes against which they pushed. Plus, the Sisters’ current day footage at recent protests and rallies shows that the fight for change has no age limit. Consistently astounding in its honesty and its ability to surprise its audience over and over again, “Rebel Hearts” is a delightful and ultimately touching look at some of history’s most unlikely progressive fighters.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – A surprisingly moving look at an unlikely group of progressive champions, this documentary details with vibrancy and energy an important historical and feminist movement.
THE BAD – Although understandable, it uses a great deal of archival film rather than footage of its own creation.