Friday, December 13, 2013

Le monachine (1963)

U.S. One Sheet Poster

Le Monachine (known in the U.S. as The Little Nuns) reunites Catherine with her director from La voglia matta, Luciano Salce, and two of her co-stars (Didi Perego and Lando Buzzanca) from her previous film, La parmigiana.  Music for the film was composed and conducted by the legendary Ennio Morricone.  Catherine is a nun, Sister Celeste, and Didi Perego is also a nun, Mother Rachele.  They live in a convent outside of Rome and are having a problem with jets flying overhead, because the jets are causing cracks in a sacred fresco painting.

The innocent nuns decide to drive to Rome and ask the pilots to stop flying over their convent.  They are accompanied by a man who lives there with them and a stow-away young boy, who is one of their students.  There is really no point in delving further into the plot.  Suffice it to say that the attempts at comedy involve the "fish-out-of-water" nuns in the big city as they first go to the airport to attempt to accomplish their mission, and ultimately pursue the director of the airline to make their request.  The harried director cannot seem to get the crazy nuns out of his life.  

This film is so different from anything else in Catherine's career that I do not know what to call it, other than an "oddity."  Catherine's entire wardrobe for the film consists of a nun's habit.  It appears to be an attempt at an Italian version of a Disney-style film of the era.  It was, without a doubt, intended for family audiences.  The problem is that it lacks the charm, humor, polish, and lushness of a good Disney film.  It was shot in black-and-white, but a good technicolor treatment would have only helped.  I very much like the quality black-and-white Italian dramas of the era, but this is a completely different type of film. 

As a fan of Catherine, I am also amazed at the blandness of her role.  She is billed as the star, and certainly has the screen-time, but the real attempts at humor are for the characters played by Didi Perego (Mother Rachelle) and Amedeo Nazzari (the director of the airline).  The lovely Sylva Koscina even has a more interesting part (as the girlfriend of the airline director).  Catherine seems to mostly be a sidekick to Didi Perego.  The young boy seems to be thrown into the mix to add to its "sweetness" factor.

The first time that I watched this film (in the English-dubbed version brought to the U.S. by Embassy Pictures), I did not like it.  After a second viewing, my opinion is less harsh, but still, the movie is just too bland.  It is not a horrible film and is probably not the worst of Catherine's career, but it is far from a classic, during a period in which Catherine was churning out several classics.  It is worth a viewing by Catherine fans, but I doubt many will ever watch it a second time.

Interestingly, Didi Perego was only 28 years old but was "aged" to 50 for the role with make-up and body-padding.  Didi, in Catherine's previous film, had played the part of a woman old enough to be her mother.

As incredible as it sounds, Catherine shot Le monachine within weeks after giving birth to Sabrina on April 16, 1963.  The July 24, 1963 edition of Variety reported that "Catherine Spaak wound 'Le Monachine,' and went right into Empty Canvas."  In between completion of La parmigiana in late 1962 and the birth of Sabrina, Catherine was busy with a civil wedding in Paris in January and a church wedding in Rome in February.  See the post from August 2013 concerning The Empty Canvas for more discussion about Catherine's hectic private life in 1963.

As I watched the film, I had two questions on my mind:  Did Catherine do her own dubbing?  How in the world did Catherine end up in this film at that stage of her career?  I have not been able to determine whether or not Catherine dubbed the English for her character in the U.S. release, but at times, the voice sounds to me like it is her.  If it is her, that is an interesting tidbit.  The publicity for The Empty Canvas always talks about how that was her first English language film and how she learned English for the role of Cecilia.  If that is indeed her dubbing of the English in The Little Nuns, then I suppose that film gave her a little bit of a head start on her language skills for The Empty Canvas

I have a theory on why Catherine did this film.  She had been taking roles that were very risque for the time and were, I am sure, frowned upon by the Catholic church.  Since Catherine had converted to Catholicism, married into the Catholic Capucci family, given birth at age 18, and had a spiritual adviser within the church, I suspect the new mother was under pressure from all quarters to tone down her image and take a more "family-oriented" role.  Besides, a role requiring her to wear a nun's habit for the entire film probably seemed like a good idea to her so soon after giving birth.  Anyway, it would be interesting to hear what she has to say about this film.  She certainly rebelled in the opposite direction with The Empty Canvas.

Le Monachine was filmed in and around Rome.  Locations included Rome's new international airport and the Palazzo Italia, as well as a place called Fiumicino, near the Ostia seashore.  The convent scenes were in a remote hilltown, Castel Madama, 30 miles from Rome.  It had a population under 4,500 persons, and it had a convent and an orphanage school, both of which are included in the film.  About 40 orphans from the school were used as extras. 

The film premiered in Italy on August 29, 1963.  According to IMDB, it premiered in the U.S. in Bismarck, North Dakota on November 14, 1965 (after, according to Variety, having been screened for the trade press in September).  Odd, isn't it?  Hopefully, I can do some future research into what was behind premiering this film in North Dakota, presuming that information is accurate. The September 1965 editions of Boxoffice show that it was scheduled for a September release. It was distributed in the U.S. by Joseph E. Levine's Embassy Pictures. 

Boxoffice reported that The Little Nuns was in the "top hit classification" for the winter quarter of 1965-1966, with a score of 126.  Films with a score over 120 were considered "top hits" (a film doing average business received a score of 100).  The film did strong business in Denver, average business in Buffalo, Kansas City, and Memphis, and weak business in Detroit. The top two films for the quarter were Thunderball with a 599 and That Darn Cat with a 289.

Reviews for the film were mixed, but generally positive.  It received good reviews from Boxoffice, Film Daily, Variety, and Parents' Magazine.  It received a fair review from Hollywood Reporter. Boxoffice asserted that the film has "many hilarious situations" and that "Miss Spaak is charming in her nun's habit."

The film received a passing mention from Bowsley Crowther in the NY Times on April 28, 1966:

"Also in neighborhood theaters with ['The 2nd Best Secret Agent in the Whole Wide World'] is a totally inappropriate Italian film, called 'The Little Nuns,' which tells a story of a Mother Superior and a young sister who go to Rome to try to persuade Alitalia not to fly planes over their convent every day.  Didi Perego and Catherine Spaak play these sticky sweet roles, and Amedo Nazzari is the airline's general manager who is eventually browbeaten by them.  Luciano Salce directed.  It has dreary dubbed English dialogue."

On the back of one of the stills displayed below, there is a U.S. newspaper review of the film (newspaper and critic unknown).  It says:

"The Mother superior is the stuffiest and dumbest of the nuns.  It would have been fun to have Margaret Rutherford in the role, which might have transformed the entire picture.

Her companion is played by Catherine Spaak, whose customary roles in foreign films are those of over-sexed female teenagers.

She is so sweet in "Nuns" that she is almost unbearable.  She is not the first worldly type to go overboard in playing at being a nun, but her goodness and patience are inhuman.

Amedo Nazzari has the role of an ill-tempered airline director who finally mends his ways.  Sylva Koscina is decorative in the part of his mistress who languishes for marriage.

There is foreboding about "Nuns" from the opening frames, which show two sisters, frolicking around a sun-dappled field.  They look so arty that one thinks the picture could not get worse, but it does."

Here is the Italian trailer for the film:

Some on-set photos:

Now for promotional material.  The U.S. one sheet poster is shown above.  Here is the U.S. half sheet poster, as well as the U.S. 40x60 poster (courtesy of the archives at

The U.S. pressbook cover:
U.S. Lobby Cards (set of 4):
U.S. stills (stills with the logo for Top Time Feature Films means that it was used for promotion of  a TV package of Embassy films).  Especially note this first still, because it has nothing to do with the film.  It appears to be from promotional material for Crazy Desire.  Embassy must have been desperate to show Catherine in something besides a nun's habit.

Italian posters and stills:

A Spanish poster:

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