Director: Jeff Baena/2017

The Decameron was a book that contains a collection of novellas, that was written in the 14th century by Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio.  Originally it was written to frame 100 stories that 10 individual characters told over 10 days to pass the time as they escaped Florence where the black death was ravaging the city.  This is a story that has influenced such literary classics as Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.  It has now influenced an independent film by director Jeff Baena called The Little Hours.

The Little Hours is based on the first tale told on the third day in The  Decameron.  It is a cast that includes Alison Brie (Community, Mad Men), Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation, Safety Not Guaranteed), Dave Franco (Now You See Me, Neighbors), Kate Micucci (When in Rome), John C. Reilly (Step Brothers, Wreck-It Ralph), Molly Shannon (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Never Been Kissed), Fred Armisen (Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy), Jemina Kirke (Girls), and Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation, The Hero, and Welcome to Happiness).  There are also appearances by Paul Reiser and Paul Weitz.

This film will not appeal to everyone.  It is crass, irreverent, and does not shy away from any subject.  Religion, witchcraft, sexuality and relationships, and gender roles are all in the cross-hairs of each improvised scene.

Unlike most stories and comedies, The Little Hours did not have a script.  It did, however, have a 28-page outline that was given to the cast.  As they arrived in Italy to film, they were given a couple of days to begin interacting together as they went through the outline, but were given the freedom to totally improvise all of their dialogue.  The result of collaborative effort is this film.

The chance to create something improvisationally was a big part of the attraction for the cast.  It was also largely a cast with a history of working together.  Jeff Baena and Aubrey Plaza are in a relationship and have worked together in Baena’s story Life After Beth.  Alison Brie is a close friend of Plaza’s and is married to Dave Franco.  Plaza has previously worked with Offerman on Parks and Recreation, and Reilly, Paul Weitz, Paul Reiser, and Molly Shannon all worked on Life After Beth as well.

This is a strong point of The Little Hours: the cast seems to be working together and their dialogue, though improvised, lends itself to a cohesive voice that binds the story together.  This much creative freedom could have easily lent itself to a story that in the end would have been a collective mess.  Instead, Baena has directed a film that largely works, despite its loose structure.

Brie, Plaza, and Micucci play three nuns named Alessandra, Fernanda, and Genevra.  Each of these nuns really have no business being in the ministry.  Alessandra is just biding her time as she waits for her father to afford a dowry so she can marry whoever.  Fernanda is foul-mouthed and violent, and participates in a much darker belief system that contradicts everything the abbey stands for.  Genevra is a rules follower and tattle-tale with some much darker secrets.  With the arrival of Massetto (Franco), a servant on the run from Lord Bruno (Offerman) who wants to kill him after he was caught sleeping with Lord Bruno’s wife, the whole abbey is about to be thrown into turmoil.  Couple that with a bad priest and head nun in the forms of John C. Reilly’s Father Tommasso and Molly Shannon’s Sister Marea, and Franco’s deaf-mute cover identity, as he stays and works at the abbey, and this comedy will be anything but traditional.

This film will not appeal to everyone.  It is crass, irreverent, and does not shy away from any subject.  Religion, witchcraft, sexuality and relationships, and gender roles are all in the cross-hairs of each improvised scene.  Like most raunchy comedies, The Little Hours seeks to wrap things up with heartfelt sentiment, and is largely able to do so without feeling contrived.

Like The Decameron, the setting is during the Middle Ages. This allows for the irreverent humor, towards religion especially, to match the same type of humor that is found in the book it is based upon.  With the black death ravaging Europe at that time, and many had lost their faith in the church, who seemed powerless to stop it.  Each character in The Little Hours likewise has little use for religion, even though they are in roles that symbolizes that faith.  Their “sins” are dealt with through scheduled times of confession and through acts of penance assigned by Father Tommasso, or later by Bishop Bartolomeo (Fred Armisen).  Afterwards, each character seems free to openly contradict their stated beliefs and engage in whatever decadence they desire, in contrast to their act of confession.  These are the dark ages indeed.  Of course much of this humor aims its sights on modern religion and how it is seen by this cast as being in its own ‘dark ages’ on issues of sexuality and the like.

This will definitely only appeal to a niche audience, but for those whom it connects with, it will be appreciated.  For everyone else, it will be overlooked or dismissed.  The cast and crew doesn’t seem to be concerned.  For them it is more of a chance to craft a story experientially from an outline, rather than filming a specific story that must adhere to a director’s vision.  They are obviously having fun.  Whether it leads to something to be consumed by the masses doesn’t seem to be the point.

The Little Hours opens at the Alamo Drafthouse and other select theaters.