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Film review: Inquiring Nuns

07 June 2019

Stephen Brown views a film in which nuns question strangers

I WAS reminded, watching Inquiring Nuns (Cert. U), of a 1979 Fawlty Towers episode. Sybil asks an uncharacteristically jubilant Basil if he’s happy. “Oh yes, I remember that. No, I’ll report it if it happens. . . . Just my way of getting through the day, dear. The Samaritans were engaged.”

A few years earlier, 1967, the same question was put in Chicago to passers-by, and the replies were equally ambivalent. The interviewers were two Dominican sisters from their mother house in Adrian, Michigan. The film formed part of an archdiocesan adult-education programme. Gordon Quinn and Gerald Temaner, co-founders of a documentaries company, Kartemquin Films, were hired to delve into some of life’s profounder issues. They picked out Sister Marie Arné and Sister Mary Campion to interrogate a variety of strangers, always beginning “Are you happy?” Answers proved as elusive as Basil Fawlty’s.

The Kartemquin film is an American take on the groundbreaking French film Chronicle of a Summer (1961), in which Parisians were similarly questioned, though not by nuns. The Sisters nervously wonder how to go about the task. “I’m not exactly sure what we’re going to do today,” Marie Arné says. “What do you think works best?” They needn’t have worried. Their fresh, young, smiling faces seem to endear them to all they approach in various locations, whether it be a supermarket, an art institute, or outside a church on East 71st Street.

That thin line between happiness and pleasure rapidly becomes apparent; people’s lists include items as widespread as success or raspberries. Some query the question’s relevance, or want to compartmentalise their lives so that they can claim happiness in at least one section. Several times, the via negativa is preferred: what makes me unhappy? The Vietnam War is frequently cited. For others, even if unspoken, the cause stems from personal sadnesses. An antidote offered by a woman in sunglasses has an unconvincing ring to it. As if quoting a self-improvement manual rather than her own heart, she asserts that there are three big things that make us happy. She begins “Sex, social life, and . . . what’s the other?” and then, after a pause, comes up with “Your work.”

By chance, the nuns encounter Stepin Fetchit. In his time, he had been a very successful comedian playing a subservient black man. By 1967, this racial stereotype was facing heavy criticism. Nevertheless, he is one of the interviewees who most definitely knows what makes him happy: receiving the Blessed Sacrament each day. Christian belief as the source of their joy figures highly in several respondents. One cannot but wonder whether the sight of nuns’ habits helped to prompt this particular answer.

I got the feeling that the pursuit of happiness, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence as an inalienable right, places unbearable pressure on many Americans. As such, this remastered film remains a fascinating documentary of the human condition. One can also discern in Philip Glass’s soundtrack (his first) a great talent emerging. If we turn the question on the two Sisters, it is interesting that both left the order: a sign that their own happiness lay elsewhere, perhaps?

At selected cinemas or via streaming (for which, visit www.curzonhomecinema.com).

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