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Why we’re so obsessed with nuns

Benedetta and Matrix are just the latest in a long line of pop culture stories about nuns. There’s a reason.

A picture of a nun, looking thoughtful.
Virginie Efira in Benedetta, a latter-day nunsploitation film with a lot on its mind.
IFC Films
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Riddle me this: When is a nun not just a nun?

Answer: when she’s a pop culture icon.

The woman in the wimple has long fascinated filmmakers and storytellers, but of late the interest seems to have kicked into hyperdrive — and not just with this weekend’s release of Paul Verhoeven’s characteristically wild Benedetta, or Lauren Groff’s lauded novel Matrix, or the recent FX series based on Black Narcissus. And though nun stories fall into all kinds of categories, from horror and romance to drama and comedy, they usually draw on the same dramatic tension: the inherent potential, whether or not it’s exercised, for women in organized religious orders to pose a threat to male-dominated religious hierarchy.

What kind of power, exactly, does a nun wield? Having taken vows to pursue a life devoted to religious service as Christ’s bride, she is revered and set apart. A convent is, from one perspective, a kind of haven. For centuries, it was a place for a woman who didn’t want to marry or had no prospects to find respect and a future (or, more darkly, for a woman to be hidden away by her family). A woman who wanted to become educated could enter a convent. Most of her daily interactions would be with other women. For some, it could look, at least from some angles, like a place to go if you simply didn’t want to deal with men anymore.

Two nuns and a man stand looking at something.
Powell and Pressburger’s 1947 drama Black Narcissus is a classic of the nun-movie subgenre.
Universal Pictures

But, of course, the larger hierarchy in which the convent exists is one dominated by men. The sisters can perform certain kinds of religious duties and devotion, but the most important offices of the church — saying mass, performing sacraments — are still reserved for men, whose gender makes them eligible to be stand-ins for Christ himself. A convent is ultimately watched over by a man. The sisters’ decision-making power is limited by men.

Does this precisely describe what it’s actually like to be a nun? Not necessarily, and not all the time. But to the fertile imagination, there’s an inherent tension in there, so it’s no surprise storytellers love to poke at it. A group of educated women living and working together might get ideas angled in feminist directions; what are they to do? A convent could look like a women’s utopia, but one that relied on men to survive. When women want to challenge male hierarchy, especially at times when that hierarchy is corrupt, what happens next?

These questions have popped up in notable movie examples in just the past few years, ranging from the stark 2013 Polish drama Ida to the raucous, raunchy 2017 indie The Little Hours. In 2016, The Innocents explored a historical tragedy in a French convent; in 2017, Novitiate turned post-Vatican II turmoil at an American convent into melodrama. The list could go on (let’s not forget the 2018 Conjuring installment The Nun), but what’s clear is the range and variety of stories the set-apart religious life provides — albeit with widely varying degrees of respect, devotion, and reality.

This is far from the first nun movie boom. Women in religious orders have furnished the basis for movies almost since the start of movies. Some of them, like the original Black Narcissus in 1947 and The Sound of Music in 1965, are among cinema’s most celebrated. And in the 1970s, the genre of “nunsploitation” — to which Benedetta is certainly an heir — hit its peak, mostly in European and Japanese cinema. Nunsploitation movies are salacious, often hypersexualized, and frequently critique the practices, rituals, and authority of the Catholic Church, a bold move particularly in countries where Catholicism is the dominant faith. (That’s never been true in Japan, but there, nunsploitation was often interpreted as a strike against a would-be encroaching foreign oppressor.)

A nun, with arms outstretched in a town square. In the background is a crucifix, also with arms outstretched.
Virginie Efira in Benedetta.
IFC Films

Benedetta takes that heritage and runs with it, an unsurprising move from Dutch director Paul Verhoeven. (This is the guy who gave us Showgirls, after all.) Based on Judith C. Brown’s 1986 book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, it’s a raucous tale based on the true story of Benedetta Carlini (played in the film by Virginie Efira), who joined the wealthy Convent of the Mother of God as a girl in the early 17th century. She became the abbess and a mystic, scandalizing counter-reformation Rome; she performed miracles, even apparently coming back to life after her death, and was also notorious for her sexuality, particularly her relationship with a younger nun, Sister Bartolomea.

Verhoeven ratchets up the sex (be warned, this is a rather explicit film), though not perhaps to the degree you might expect. Benedetta is not, fundamentally, just a romp about lesbian nuns. It’s about a religious hierarchy filled with people who have very little faith in God but have found in the church some way to access power and standing. Charlotte Rampling, who plays the convent’s Abbess when Benedetta first joins (and whom she later deposes), is the film’s most tragic and interesting figure: a woman who doesn’t really believe in God, or in Benedetta’s miracles, but is willing to look the other way if it means their convent might benefit.

Benedetta is also about church politics, fundamentally corrupt and self-serving, more interested in personal gain and decadent living than the slowly encroaching plague and the spiritual well-being of the faithful. In this film, that’s embodied in the nuncio (played by Lambert Wilson), the papal ambassador and a giant hypocrite.

There’s an obvious fantasy element in the layperson’s attraction to tales of convent life. For many of us, the convent feels like another reality from the one most of us live in. It’s a world regulated by a strict set of rules and roles, inhabited by women who often wear uniform, unusual costumes and address one another as “Sister.” (There’s a reason Frank Herbert, in creating the Bene Gesserit sisterhood in Dune, borrowed naming conventions and other elements from female monastic orders for his own, the women who yield the real power in the galaxy.)

And there’s an appeal to the inherent embodiedness of the stories — which is why a lot of them lean so heavily on examining the sisters’ sexual desires, sublimated or otherwise. Bodies are often important in these tales, and stories of female saints similarly often are linked to physical desire, pain, and even harm — consider this year’s astounding horror film Saint Maud.

A woman in a makeshift robe and a crucifix looks at herself in a mirror.
Morfydd Clark in Saint Maud.

But it’s that question of threatened male authority that we keep returning to. Lauren Groff’s novel Matrix takes its name from the role that Marie de France, the 12th-century nun at its center, played in her convent. (“Matrix” means “mother,” as in Mother Superior.) Marie, in real life, was a poet and an enigma to history; Groff’s beautifully, unsettlingly rendered version of her life recounts her restoration of the convent to which she is sent as prioress. Her reforms and initiatives — sly at first, then increasingly bold — transform the convent from a dank hellhole to a flourishing utopia, surrounded by a literal maze to protect their bounties. Predictably, Marie’s reforms anger the male authorities, church and secular alike; eventually she goes so far as to assume priestly duties, alarming her own nuns, too.

Aside from the terrific storytelling, Matrix is compelling for offering a vision of a feminist nun — one might even say a radical separatist feminist — who is not “modernized” so much as she understands the opportunity available to her, seizes it, and finds immense meaning in her work. Marie’s mindset is thoroughly medieval, yet it reminds us that people have always been people, with desires, frustrations, miseries, and ambitions. As in Benedetta, sexual desire oriented toward other women comes into the tale as well, but it’s not merely salacious; it’s a way to show how little Marie, or any of them, really feel they’re in need of men. And that, to the powerful men who want what they have, is frightening.

Let’s be perfectly clear: Many, if not most, of the tales about nuns are not told by devout Catholics. Many women in religious orders might strongly object to the depiction of their lives, or to their seriously taken vows being sources of lewd entertainment. Even the most carefully rendered tale is bound to contain misrepresentations and fabrications.

But as a culture, we return to them nevertheless, over and over, and this tension — the possibility of confronting male authority while also operating within it — is surely a reason why. One might fruitfully (if incompletely) compare the appeal of nun stories to why we’re drawn to stories about witches, who explicitly aim to upset patriarchal structures, particularly religious ones. The latter simply walk outside the system entirely; the former apply pressure from within.

A group of nuns leads a crowd of sign-holding protestors, mostly women.
The Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Rebel Hearts.
Discovery Plus

That’s why the best example this year might be the documentary Rebel Hearts, which tells the rousing story of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Los Angeles. In the 1960s, following directives stemming from Vatican II, the sisters began to propose and make changes in their community, from how they talked and prayed with one another to the clothing they wore. Many of the sisters actively worked for progressive causes, such as opposing the Vietnam War and supporting social justice initiatives. Among them were Sister Corita Kent, whose artwork that often examines the true meaning of Jesus’s work (especially in themes like love of neighbor and justice) drew widespread interest from the broader world but condemnation from certain corners of the church.

In their reforms to their lives, they were following instructions from Pope Paul VI — but their archbishop, Cardinal James Francis McIntyre, was firmly opposed to them, seeing a challenge to his authority. Ultimately he removed the sisters from teaching in the diocese schools in Los Angeles, and eventually ordered them to return to their former patterns of life or renounce their vows. In the end, the sisters decided to leave the formal organization of the Catholic Church, and they reorganized as the Immaculate Heart Community, an ecumenical group of laypeople who worship, pray, and serve together.

Rebel Hearts is the rare uplifting, real-life spin on the familiar story of religious women challenging hierarchy, not least because you can see, vividly, that it is their desire to follow Christ’s example as best they can that leads them away from an earthly authority they can no longer follow. That’s another addition to the rich variety of storytelling settings that women in religious orders have always furnished. Whether they’re erotic, hilarious, harrowing, inspiring, or some combination of them all, there’s one thing every story about nuns manages to be: scandalous, in the very best way.

Matrix was released on September 7. Benedetta opened in theaters on December 3 and will premiere on digital platforms on December 21. Rebel Hearts was released in June and is streaming on Discovery+.