Few institutions notoriously resist change like the Roman Catholic Church, which to this day upholds rules of celibacy and continues to forbid the ordination of women. So for some, it may be surprising to learn that the church’s iron-fisted rule has long been met with resistance.
Such a struggle is captured in “Rebel Hearts,” Pedro Kos’s feel-good documentary about a particularly gutsy group of nuns who took inspiration from the social upheavals of the 1960s to fight against exploitation by their male superiors.
Combining archival footage with paper doll-esque animation and a flurry of talking-head interviews gathered over two decades by Shawnee Isaac-Smith, one of the film’s producers, this documentary traces the controversies and trailblazing feats of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart, whose social activism and participation in civil rights and workers protests upended notions of the fragile, cloistered nun.
Led by Anita Caspary, these women — and the liberal college they ran in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles — were considered dangerous by Catholic hard-liners like Cardinal James Francis McIntyre, the entrepreneurial head of the Los Angeles Archdiocese who the documentary claims staffed his many religious schools with unpaid, unqualified young nuns. Caspary and her unruly flock (including the pop artist Corita Kent, whose screen prints and drawings were often the cause of scandal) collectively sought autonomy — voting, for instance, to rescind the habit requirement.
An unrelenting pop music soundtrack vests the story with a cheesy rah-rah sensibility, while the film’s breakneck pacing hinders proper reflection of any single event or anecdote. The onslaught of information certainly impresses by illuminating a rich and not-often-discussed slice of feminist history, but the execution is distractingly flashy and gratingly unfocused.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 39 minutes. In theaters.