Dark Habits (Film Review)

Pedro Almodovar is undoubtedly Spain’s best-known and most important contemporary filmmaker, and has been described as “the cultural symbol par excellence of the restoration of democracy in Spain” (Steven Marsh, Senses of Cinema). It is no surprise then that the recent BFI season Good Morning Freedom! Spanish Cinema After Franco, which looked at the adventurous, alternative and eclectic movement that sprang up within Spanish culture after the demise of the country’s dictator in 1975, should include half a dozen of his films amongst the 13 titles in the selection. Of these Dark Habits (Entre Las Tineblas, 1983) is his third.

Whereas his first two features, Pepi, Luci, Bom (Pepi, Luci, Bom Y Otras Chicas Del Montón, 1980) and Labyrinth Of Passions (Laberinto De Pasiones, 1982) highlighted a newly found spirit of freedom, with its focus on the punk music scene, wild parties, drugs and sex and which helped Almodovar to make a name for himself as an exciting new film-maker; it was the subject matter and for many, the blasphemous content of Dark Habits, that established his reputation as the enfant terrible of Spanish cinema.

When Yolanda’s drug addict boyfriend dies from the heroin she supplied him, she is forced to flee her job as a cabaret singer and find a place to lay low for a while. She recalls the two admiring nuns who came to ask for her autograph after one of her shows and decides to pay them a visit. The Mother Superior welcomes her into the mission of the Humble Redeemers without hesitation. The convent has fallen on hard times: the Mother General, their spiritual leader lies dying in hospital, the place is falling down around them, and worse, the Marquise, their benefactress, has decided to discontinue the monthly annuity set up by her late husband, leaving them without an income. Yet for the Mother Superior the arrival of Yolanda is a gift from God: the nuns have not redeemed anyone for some time and the arrival of their new and only guest is an opportunity to restore the convent to the bustling haven of needy sinners – drug dealers, murderers, and prostitutes – that it once was. Yolanda is offered their best room: an opulent suite of pastels and satin bed-sheets, whose previous inhabitant, Virginia – intriguingly, the daughter of the Marquise – herself became a nun and later ran away to Africa where she was eaten by cannibals.

It does not take long for Yolanda to adapt to life in the convent, spending her time reading over the diary she stole from her deceased boyfriend and getting to know the other residents. There are six in total: the Mother Superior, four other nuns and the chaplain.

The nuns all have unique, bizarre sounding names that have been given to them deliberately by the Mother Superior in order to reinforce their vows of humility. But with little real work to keep them occupied, Sister Manure, Sister Dammed, Sister Snake and Sister Sewer Rat are free to spend their time indulging in their own idiosyncratic interests: Sister Manure cooks the meals in between bouts of LSD hallucinations; Sister Dammed cares for all the animals including a tiger that she has adopted as her son, and for whom she plays the bongo drums at mealtimes; Sister Snake, with the help of the chaplain, dresses the statues of the Virgin Mary, putting together seasonal collections in all the most fashionable materials; and Sister Rat of the Sewer writes racy novels based on the lives of the girls who have been redeemed at the convent, which she publishes secretly to great success under the pseudonym Concha Torres.

The Mother Superior herself, a heavy drug user and a lesbian who benefits from the fact her position allows her to make contact with needy and vulnerable young women, offers little in the way of moral guidance. She falls quickly and deeply in love with Yolanda, showering her with gifts and supplying her with coke and heroin, which the two take together until Yolanda decides she wants to give up the drugs and make a clean start. As Yolanda gradually distances herself, the Mother Superior is left to deal not only with her unrequited passion but also with the problem of how to safeguard the convent’s future.

It is easy to see why Dark Habits might have caused offense: it was rejected by Cannes Film Festival on account of its apparently sacrilegious treatment of religion, and although it went on to premiere at the Venice Film Festival it was not shown in the official selection given that some members of the organising committee considered it blasphemous and anti-Catholic.

Yet despite the controversy the film created, for many the irreverent tone and the humour of the outlandish situations must have been seen as a further breath of fresh air after so many years of austerity and repression. Franco was not only deeply supportive of the Catholic Church but was also, significantly, responsible for the closure of the National School of Cinema in Madrid (which meant that the young Almodovar had to teach himself the basic skills of film-making).

The new wave of films, part of the cultural movement with became known as La Movida, marked a new era of creativity and experimentation. Almodovar; like his nuns, released from the restraining hand of authority, lets his fantasies run riot and gives himself to the seductions of glamour. As a result, the film with its boleros, wild animals, kitsch décor and gaudy costumes appears to personify something between a seedy lounge bar and a circus. But underneath the carnavalesque atmosphere, there is a deeper message, one of compassion and understanding for the sinner: for, as the Mother Superior tells Yolanda when she questions her photo collection of fallen women, it is in the imperfect creatures, that God finds all of his greatness.

by Sofia Serbin de Skalon

Dark Habits was showing as part of the Good Morning Freedom! – Spanish Cinema After Franco season at BFI.

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