Inquiring Nuns review – sisters do a documentary for themselves

In this engaging film, two innocent, smiling nuns hit the streets of Chicago in 1968 to ask its citizens how happy they are

The second film by what would grow into Chicago powerhouse outfit Kartemquin (Hoop Dreams, Minding the Gap), this 1968 documentary curio has the fun conceit of sending two smiling nuns out into the Windy City to quiz citizens about their lives. Directors Gordon Quinn and Gerald Temaner were inspired by Jean Rouch’s 1960 cinéma vérité touchstone Chronicle of a Summer. “How much should we do?” wonders Sister Marie Arné as she and Sister Mary Campion gather themselves before setting forth. Her efforts to demarcate their interviewing are almost a manifesto statement for the rawness with which vérité’s American counterpart, Direct Cinema, sought to encounter daily reality.

“Are you happy?” is what the sisters settle on: a humdinger they put to people in the streets, outside shopping malls, in museum and art galleries, to working men, black churchgoers, immigrants and, in one segment, the actor Stepin Fetchit. Quite often, the reply is yes, for simple reasons – family, fulfilling work. That fat-of-the-land postwar complacency, and how truthful people are in feeling they must subscribe to it, is interesting in itself. But many times the sisters strike a vein of personal dissatisfaction – like the musician who, from behind Jackie Onassis glasses, answers their query “Well … ” and goes on from there – that their pastoral role allows them to probe.

Gradually, these encounters build a kind of sociological-historical collage of value both for what’s included – Vietnam crops up time and time again as a reason for unhappiness – and what isn’t. Racism is never mentioned, so perhaps in 1968 it was simply too hot a subject to discuss on camera.

With the nun stunt anticipating the more provocateur tactics of later documentarians, it’s debatable how vérité the film is. But Arne and Campion are good listeners and, nudged onwards by Philip Glass’s inquisitive organ score, they delve enthusiastically into a more personalised mass of humanity than the composer’s later Koyaanisqatsi. At one point, the directors repeatedly zoom in on Campion’s shining eyes as she philosophically fences with a tall, dark and handsome Chicagoan; are they trying to suggest that this servant of God fancies her interviewee?

Full of idealism and an innocent faith in the possibilities of people, Inquiring Nuns is a soothing balm for our age of 24/7 online hate.


Phil Hoad

The GuardianTramp

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