Taking inspiration from a particularly ribald tale from "The Decameron," Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio's collection of 14th century novellas, "The Little Hours" quickly spirals off in its own delightfully absurd direction. That the Catholic League decided to issue an official condemnation of this wacked-out story of three horny medieval nuns immediately after its Sundance premiere should tell you everything you need to know about writer-director Jeff Baena's gleefully obscene comedy of devotion and desire.
At the center of the tale are the holy women in question: aloof Alessandra (Alison Brie), aggressively hostile-bordering-on-sociopathic Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza), and uptight busybody Genevra (Kate Micucci), who's forever running to her Mother Superior (Molly Shannon) to report her fellow sisters' latest transgressions.
Into this hotbed of frenzied activity enters handsome servant boy Massetto (Dave Franco). Fleeing the wrath of his master (Nick Offerman) after he's caught in bed with the mistress of the house (a hilarious Lauren Weedman), Masetto implores bumbling Father Tommasso (a deadpan John C. Reilly) to give him shelter. The convent just so happens to need a new groundskeeper after the previous laborer was run off by the unruly nuns, so the priest agrees, suggesting that Massetto pretend to be deaf and mute in the hopes that the sisters might leave him alone. Cue the carnal experimentation and sexual escapades.
"The Little Hours" melds "Monty Python"-esque irreverence with a dash of European sexploitation. The anachronistically foul-mouthed -- and largely improvised -- dialogue clashes comedically with the otherwise authentic period setting (the film was shot in real, era-appropriate castles in the Tuscan countryside). What might have been a one-joke concept -- basically nuns gone wild -- feels anything but, as Plaza, Brie, and Micucci wring every drop of comedy out of the material.
Franco is mostly called upon to look attractive while other characters shout abuse at and/or have their way with him, but he does it all quite well. He has a great rapport with Reilly, and a late night confessional between the two is an inspired highlight. Fred Armisen is also wonderful as a bishop who pays a surprise visit to the convent, and is scandalized by what he discovers.
"The Little Hours" is silly, inspired lunacy with a filthy, surprisingly warm-hearted soul. It also boasts an overtly feminist streak, as the three women indulge in their own unique pleasure-seeking exploits and engage in humanity's age-old tug-of-war between our righteous aspirations and our baser instincts. Marrying an exuberantly vulgar sex farce to some sly commentary about religious and social repression in any era, "The Little Hours" reminds us we might not be out of the Dark Ages quite yet.