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Oeuvre: Almodóvar: Dark Habits

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Oeuvre is an in-depth examination of the entire body of work of an important director.

It’s hard to differentiate, at least on the surface, what makes Dark Habits so different from Pedro Almodóvar’s best movies. Even this early in his career, all the standards seem to be in place: casual transgression of societal boundaries, strong female characters and a hectic telenovela-esque plotline. Yet despite this familiar structure, the film never comes close to attaining the same spring in its step, instead staggering through a series of ultimately confounding scenarios.

It may be that, despite being dotted with the earmarks of the director’s later projects, Dark Habits shares almost none of their charm. It may also be that it seems less concerned with making sense than throwing out a vignette-style chain of shocking occurrences, capped off by a musical number. It’s definitely the case that the self-conscious effrontery in which it engages, taking on the Catholic church through repeated direct (if not necessarily angry) swipes, has not aged well, especially compared to the far more coherent missives fellow Spaniard Luis Buñuel was broadcasting from abroad in the decades preceding its release.

A lot of the sloppiness here probably stems from the film’s production process, which involved a mid-filming rewrite to accommodate lead actress Cristina Sánchez Pascual’s not exactly prodigious talent. Reputedly hired by multi-millionaire Hervé Hachuel to produce a star vehicle for his then-girlfriend, Almodóvar envisioned a story which would span continents, taking Josef von Sternberg’s Blonde Venus as his inspiration. Instead, the limited abilities of Pascual, who only appeared in one more movie in her career, forced him to focus on one of the character’s early adventures, padding out her performance with a stock company of supplementary ladies, many of whom would become regulars in his films.

The characters in Dark Habits are, unsurprisingly, predominately female: powerful but deeply flawed women who inhabit a world mostly closed off from men. Predating Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act by nine years, Pascual’s Yolanda Bel flees to the protection of a nearby convent after accidentally killing her boyfriend with a bad dose of heroin. Of course this happens to be the world’s most insane nunnery, filled with sisters who abuse drugs, sleep on beds of nails and keep wild tigers as pets.

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Believing squarely in the absolute evil of humanity, which she calls, “the worst being in all creation,” the Mother Superior brands her flock with gross-out names like Sister Manure and Sister Rat and engages in a wholesale welcoming of sinners and society cast-outs. The presence of these undesirables in the convent, most notably the now-departed Virginia (who in the madcap style of the film has since been eaten by African cannibals) had more of an effect on the nuns than they did on their visitors. The depraved lifestyles they lead are depicted as entirely crazy but ultimately silly ones.

Yolanda’s trek from the real world into the prickly bosom of the church, where she becomes bemusedly privy to its inner sickness, may approach a cohesive metaphor, but Dark Habits largely remains a mess. The weirdness that occurs feels more reflexive than anything else, erupting in plotted bouts of shocking behavior (see nuns shoot up, drop LSD, lust over other women, vomit out windows!) that contribute to a frenzied and disordered storyline. Watching Sister Snake and a visiting priest admit their forbidden love for one another through a confessional booth and talk about raising the tiger as their son sounds amusing on paper, but the shambling procession of these kind of sound-bite morsels of wackiness becomes dreary far before the closing musical number, which also goes on way too long.

Almodóvar’s depiction of a world whose madness has rendered the institution of the church untenable is florid and colorful but ultimately not very good at all. In this sense, Dark Habits stands as an important benchmark failure, setting up the format of later films while failing to sustain it itself.

by Jesse Cataldo

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