Italian writer/director Alice Rohrwacher delivers an interesting and thought provoking film that is set at a Catholic boarding school in war-time Italy during the holidays. The school, run by strict Catholic nuns, is the home to a group of young girls, doing what young girls do; they play, they rebel, they attempt to have fun and be the children that they are, much to the chagrin of those that are charged with their care.
The film takes an interesting stance when it comes to the children and their actions: they let the children be just that, aware of rules and that they should be followed, but also knowing that they want to play and have fun, and while they know the rules are in place, not all of them make sense.
From obediently listening to a recap of the current war inside raging for their Italian brethren to the near ornamental display the girls must take on during a nativity scene, the young orphans toe the line between respecting power and being individuals full of imagination and energy. And while the film itself doesn’t really make any judgements on the girls and their behavior, the Mother Superior (played by Alba Rohrwacher) certainly does.
From chiding the girls for dancing when the radio is accidentally moved to get the radio signal for some modern music instead of the wartime report to an explicit “choice” to give up a delicacy the girls would likely never see again as a sacrifice for the Lord, the Mother Superior and her subordinates treat these girls like clay to be molded in the morality of faith that they believe is the only correct choice, despite their own behaviors that would be seen as less than holy.
And that might be the moral of this story that, in its own context, claims to not really have one: that people are complicated, of all ages, and nothing really makes sense or is clear. The morally stringent nuns are guilty of things like underpaying the people that work on their holy building while demanding sacrifice and perfection from their wards. The girls are expected to be perfect vessels for the light of the lord while wanting to be themselves, which would also mean not always being the most stringent on topics of faith. They want to play and eat cake, especially the absolutely wasteful and over the top cake that takes over seventy eggs at a time where that many eggs would feed dozens.
Wrapped around this is the presentation of the story, which is a letter from novelist Elsa Morante to Goffredo Fofi, a friend and literary critic. As the letter is read, we get the story about these girls, and as the story wraps up, gives an almost knowing shrug to the audience that adds some absurdism to the film in a way that is a nearly staggering admission about the complexities of life that almost invalidates lessons of morality itself.
Rohrwacher brings this about is a stunning and almost impossible way: presenting a story about people, young people specifically, that doesn’t adhere to the moral plays that attach themselves to so many stories that focus on the young. Instead, we get a beautifully crafted short that is about everything and nothing, showing the juxtaposition of life, for both the young and the old, the strict and the relaxed, for those who listen and those who speak.
With a skilled cast of Alba Rohrwacher, Greta Zuccheri Montanari, Carmen Pommella and impressive performances from a group of young girls that are, by design, not really actors, this film is a testament of the ability of filmmakers to tackle complex themes and tell a story that is unique, even is told in familiar ways.
Le Pupille can be found streaming on Disney+, and don’t forget to check out our “5 Questions With” interview with Alice Rohrwacher!