The summer before my first year of college, my classmates and I received copies of Homer’s Iliad in an elaborate orientation ceremony. The book's spine had yet to be creased; its margins yet to be filled with the mutterings of professors. Yet while our copies were brand-new, the book's contents had been read by generations of students. Now, it was our turn.
Classic texts like the Iliad are still read today because they connect us to truths that remain untarnished by time. But such truths aren’t exclusively found in Ancient Greek epic poetry, regardless of what academics may believe. Sometimes, they’re found in comedies from the year 2017.
Yes, I’m about to equate The Little Hours, a bawdy romp about three nuns in the year 1397, to The Iliad. And here’s why.
In The Little Hours, Alessandra (Alison Brie), Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza), and Genevra (Kate Micucci) live in an Italian monastery, surrounded by the kind of pastoral beauty that would have sent Wordsworth spewing collections of poetry. Though the landscape is tranquil, the nuns are raging. In the first scene, after the convent gardener gives them a friendly nod, the nuns respond by hurling his crops at him and exclaiming, "These turnips are shit!"
With their valley-girl American accents and creative cursing, the nuns quickly establish that they are nothing like your idea of Catholic school teachers. In fact, they’re a lot more like us. Alessandra, the daughter of a wealthy merchant who funds the monastery, embroiders languidly until her father can fund her dowry — she wants love (but will settle for sex). Fernanda, played by Plaza with sinister deadpan, slinks around mischievously — she wants adventure. And Genevra, the mousy and manic outcast, orbits them both with an irritating reverence — she wants acceptance.
Though wildly different, Fernanda, Genevra, and Alessandra can all agree on one thing. After Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly) offers refuge to a strapping young servant on the run from his former employer, the nuns are all desperate for a taste of serf. Each nun frantically seduces the eager, overwhelmed Massetto (Dave Franco) in a variety of hilarious contortions.
The Little Hours extracts humour from the simplest and most familiar of circumstances. There are cuckolded husbands, dim-witted guards, and friendly drunks on adventures gone awry. Yet while watching, I didn’t miss the sharp political insight of a “smart” comedy. Judging by the riotous, full-body laughter racking the audience, they didn’t, either.
Our habited trio knows nothing of the Kardashians or the Clintons or the Trumps. They’re not TV junkies, and their lives aren’t shaped around the internet. Given the medieval setting, The Little Hours can't relate to its audience through shared cultural experience. Instead, the movie makes us laugh by poking fun at universal desires: to have sex, to have fun, and to want more than what we have.
With its timeless approach to comedy, I found The Little Hours delivered a brief balm to the frantic, 24/7 news cycle awaiting outside the cinema. While scrolling through the sound and fury of Twitter, it’s easy to think that this precise moment is the most dire, important, and pressing moment that has ever been. By way of its simple comedy, The Little Hours reminded me that life has gone on for centuries, and will continue to do so. We're not so special.
Ultimately, I wasn’t surprised to discover that The Little Hours is actually based on a classic work of literature: The Decameron, a collection of 14th-century stories by Giovanni Boccaccio, taught alongside The Iliad in many schools.
In times like these, we could turn to Homer to learn about human behaviour during war. Or, we could laugh. Like the slapstick, expressive brilliance of Mr. Bean, The Little Hours will be funny in 50 years, and it would have been funny 50 years ago. Times may change, but what makes us laugh doesn't.
The Little Hours premieres in the US on Friday, June 30, 2017 (UK release date TBC).