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The Almodóvar Project: Dark Habits

Released in 1983
Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Starring Cristina Sánchez Pascual, Julieta Serrano, Chus Lampreave and Marisa Paredes
Running Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

 

Nuns gotta do what nuns gotta do; screenshot from Dark Habits.

 

Is it weird that a movie about a drug-addicted singer wanted by the mob, who seeks shelter in a convent run by a lesbian heroin addict and her masochist, LSD-gobbling best friend, is one of the sweetest, most life-affirming and overtly Christian films in Pedro Almodóvar's filmography?

Financed by the Spanish millionaire Hervé Hachuel as a vehicle for his then-wife, Cristina Sánchez Pascual, Dark Habits finds Almodóvar fully in control of both medium and message, his outrageousness no longer sprayed shotgun-like all over the screen but rather focused on smaller, more personal subjects and moments. Almodóvar has solved his John Waters problem, and has assimilated his thematic and cinematic influences without being absorbed by them.

In Dark Habits, Pedro Almodóvar examines the quest for redemption and its relationship to Christianity, and while he finds the institutions surrounding the Christian faith to be a tad suspicious, his view of those attempting to live by the religious ethos is another matter altogether. Here, the moral landscape inhabited by Almodóvar's cast is more subtle, more nuanced, with each character's aspirations, contradictions and compromises demonstrating the struggles illuminating the duelling potentials for grace and selfishness in us all. Also: You'll see titties, if you stick around long enough. Something for everyone!

As always, spoilers follow.

 

Yolanda in her dressing room, unable to get her goddamned lighter to work.

 

The film opens as Yolanda, played by Cristina Sánchez Pascual, returns to the upstairs apartment she shares with her lover, a fellow heroin addict named Jorge. His habit clearly controls him, at least — she's barely through the door before he's grabbed her purse and dumped it out on the floor, sifting for the drugs she carries. They argue as he shoots up, then she hits the bathroom. While she's there, Jorge dies of the adulterated heroin sold to Yolanda. Too late, she rushes to the living room, sees the body and grabs the only important thing left in the apartment: his diary, and a possible key to understanding their turbulent relationship.

Fleeing to the nightclub where she works as a singer, Yolanda barely has a moment to catch her breath before she's confronted by thugs seeking to reach her now-dead lover. She flees again, boarding and unboarding buses throughout the night, until dawn finds her in a small café, drinking coffee and rummaging through her purse, which was given to her by the first people to ask for her autograph: a pair of nuns.

One of those fans was Mother Superior, the nun in charge of the Community of Humble Redeemers, and we cut to her attempting to deal with The Countess, widow of the convent's principal benefactor, who casually informs Mother Superior that she's cutting all funding for the Community...

I don't know about Labyrinth of Desire, but between this and Pepe, Luci, Bom Almodóvar has shown a remarkable efficiency of storytelling. In each film, the plot is well underway within the first ten minutes — not a lot of meandering with the scripts. Also like Pepe, Luci, Bom, Dark Habits finds itself racing through (and dispensing with) the plot as quickly as possible, in order to get to what each film is really about: character and subtext.

 

Mother Superior looks on as Yolanda enters the Community of Humble Redeemers.

 

Yolanda arrives to find a convent in search of a purpose. Originally built to shelter the fallen women of Mardid, the Community now houses Mother Superior, four nuns and no one else. The Chaplain dutifully arrives to offer Mass to pews empty of all save the five women who live there. Yolanda's arrival, then, is a momentous event for our other heroines. At last, the Community of Humble Redeemers has someone to redeem!

We quickly discover that there's something different about this convent. The nuns have each taken names meant to degrade them: Sister Manure, Sister Rat, Sister Snake, Sister Damned. Each has differing reasons for having taken refuge in the church, with the most extreme being Sister Manure, played by Marisa Paredes, her character a murderess whose desire to repent for past deeds has led her to mortification of the flesh and an LSD-fueled quest for religious visions. This is in keeping with the Community's core philosophy. As Mother Superior explains to Yolanda, "One of the bases of our community is self-mortification and humiliation."

As we're introduced to the cast of Dark Habits, we're being introduced to the women who'll serve as Almodóvar's female ensemble of actors for the rest of his career: We've already met Carmen Maura, of course, and both Marisa Paredes and Cecilia Roth will appear in various Almodóvar films for decades to come, but the real treat for me was in seeing the recently-departed Chus Lampreave appear here in her first role for Pedro, playing Sister Rat. Lampreave would go on to take parts in seven more Almodóvar movies, often (but not always) as a mother to one of the main characters, up through the 2009 film Broken Embraces.

 

From left to right: Sisters Rat, Manure, Snake and Damned.

 

The next morning, Mother Superior comes to Yolanda's room and casually offers her heroin, going so far as to shoot up first in order to demonstrate the drug's purity. The two women soon begin to bond, each sharing a love of both sweet music and hard drugs. It eventually becomes apparent that Mother Superior is something of a closeted lesbian which, like her drug habit, she unrealistically assumes she has concealed from the women around her. It's likewise obvious that Mother Superior is infatuated with Yolanda, who in turn encourages her affections without ever seriously reciprocating them. Yolanda is heartbroken: Whenever she's alone, she falls into Jorge's diary, hoping to find some form of solace and even adding to the text in her ex-lover's handwriting. While she may not share Mother Superior's romantic needs, Yolanda nonetheless needs someone to be there for her, and certainly needs someone to offer her heroin. This one-sided love affair will result in dramatically differing outcomes for each woman.

At this point, Dark Habits only occasionally acknowledges any sort of continuing plot, preferring instead to dwell on character interaction and development. Sister Manure, utterly devoted to Mother Superior, spies on Sister Rat, who was once Mother Superior's friend at the seminary and now easily falls into Yolanda's confidence. Sister Rat is a novelist, it turns out, her stories based upon the various women who've passed through the convent, the manuscripts passed along to her sister (played by Pepi, Luci, Bom's Eva Siva), who in turn publishes them under a pseudonym. Sister Damned, an obsessive-compulsive with a cleanliness fetish, cares for a number of animals at the convent, including a now-grown tiger left as a cub by a previous supplicant. Sister Snake is not-so-secretly in love with the Chaplain, who assists her in making fine dresses for various mannequins of female saints.

The nuns vary in character development: Sisters Manure and Rat are the most fully realized, with Sister Damned getting a fair-to-middling amount of screentime by virtue of being played by Almodóvar's early muse, Carmen Maura, and Lina Canalejas' Sister Snake reduced to a barely-on-camera cypher.

 

Yolanda and Mother Superior share a snort, dependent upon one another for entirely different reasons.

 

The main event, however, is the push-me-pull-you relationship between Yolanda and Mother Superior. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that each is tempting the other with things that she can't really give. Yolanda simply isn't attracted to her matronly benefactor. Mother Superior cannot supply the endless stream of drugs desired by her younger ward, and the refuge that she offers is turning into a pit of longing for a lost love, a lost life, in which Yolanda will eventually drown, if she allows things to go that far.

And yet: While each is the other woman's temptor — the other woman's Serpent in the Garden, basically — neither is consciously trying to hurt or torment the other. Good and evil don't really apply as motivations, here. They don't even serve as satisfactory descriptions of Yolanda and Mother Superior's actions. There are no angels or devils in this movie. There are only people.

The complexity of desires, needs and aspirations make human interaction difficult to judge in all but the most extreme circumstances, and by and large we seldom if ever hit such extremes in our lifetimes. Set in the sort of religious environment found in Dark Habits, where the battle between good and evil is usually depicted in the most stark terms possible, these smaller, more human motivations can be easily distorted and abused for the purpose of assigning heroes and villains where there frequently aren't any to be found. Avoiding these pitfalls — indeed, observing that such all-encompassing judgements can be pitfalls — is what often gives the stories of Pedro Almodóvar their thematic weight and depth.

Put it this way: The two moral poles around which the characters in Dark Habits struggle and spin aren't Satan and God. They're Sister Manure, intolerant of those who would violate the letter of the law while secretly torturing herself over past sins, and Sister Rat, living a life of almost perfect contentment while concealing the things that might spark the approbriation of others, not becase she herself thinks them evil but because others are likely to do so. Neither character is presented as a bad person, per se. They're just different people, with different ethical compasses and thus different lenses through which they view the people around them.

The judgements we make of ourselves inevitably become the judgements we throw at those around us. Within these two extremes, Yolanda and Mother Superior simultaneously support one another and use one another, as each struggles against the failings they see within themselves.

 

Mercedes arrives on the convent's doorstep, and upsets the balance for both Mother Superior and Yolanda.

 

Things finally come to a head when Mercedes (played by Cecilia Roth), Mother Superior's former ward, former lover and former fellow drug addict, arrives at the Community of Humble Redeemers in the middle of the night. Knowing full well that where Mercedes goes, the police will inevitably follow, Mother Superior initially tries to throw Mercedes back out on the street, but in the end succumbs to both her mission as a nun and the embers of her one-time love and lets her in to stay until morning. Roth's role in the film is relatively brief, but she does well with it: From the moment we see her, she's a classic hustler, attempting to worm her way back into Mother Superior's heart with a seeming confidence that never quite covers her obvious desperation. Both Mercedes and Mother Superior know that the former is using the latter as a last resort — and yet, Mother Superior lets her in.

A knock at the door awakens Mother Superior the next morning, fully dressed yet cuddled alongside Mercedes on the narrow mattress. As expected, the police have arrived, and while Mother Superior at first tries to stop them, she inevitably finds herself leading the police to Mercedes, barely calling a halt to the proceedings long enough to put shoes on her ex-lover's feet before she's dragged away.

Yolanda sees the cops from her window and, thinking they've come for her, desperately begins to tear up Jorge's incriminating, drug-fuelled diary. Even after Mother Superior arrives to explain what happened, Yolanda finds herself shaken by the experience, and resolves then and there to quit using heroin and clean up her life.

 

Mother Superior's long, dark night of the soul.

 

Yolanda spends a gruelling next few days kicking her habit — sorry, but the pun was inevitable enough to be in the film's title, after all — and as she begins lifting herself up from her circumstances, Mother Superior begins to fall. With her lost love for Mercedes rubbed in her face and Yolanda working to end her dependence on heroin (and thus her dependence on the woman giving it to her), an inconsolable Mother Superior retreats to the chapel, fasting, praying and falling apart, to the point where Sister Manure feels compelled to intervene... without success. It's the only scene in the film where any character openly doubts the presence of God, and all the more powerful for it being Mother Superior. Up until this point, Julieta Serrano's character has been the rock upon which all others have clung, the model of quiet strength and order ensuring the stability of the convent. When Mother Superior's faith in both God and the world falters, the very heart of the film seems undone. It's a powerful moment, carried and magnified by Serrano's confidence and ability as an actress.

Worried for their leader and protector, the other nuns decide to throw a birthday party for Mother Superior, at which Yolanda, now past her addiction and working in the garden, agrees to sing. Meanwhile, a letter from Africa arrives at the convent, bearing news of the Countess' daughter. From here, Mother Superior's spirits lift, and she begins to hatch a plan...

 

Yolanda sings for Mother Superior.

 

As all of the above suggests, a significant part of Dark Habits' success as a story rests on the performances of its two principal leads, Cristina Sánchez Pascual and Julieta Serrano. Both women more than rise to the challenge, conveying as much about the characters they inhabit through body language as dialogue, and refraining from grand, sweeping gestures save for when the drama actually demands it. Pascual in particular was a revelation: My previous experience with her had been her small part as the Bearded Lady in Pepi, Luci, Bom, in which she appears on-screen seemingly for the sole purpose of chewing as much of the surrounding scenery as possible. It was fun to watch, but in no way did that performance prepare me for the subtlety and nuance Pascual displays in the role of Yolanda.

Oddly, Pedro Almodóvar himself seems to disagree with this assessment. From the film's Wikipedia page:

Almodóvar explains: "I came up with the story of a girl who drives both men and women wild, a girl who sings, drinks, takes drugs, occasionally goes through periods of abstinence and has the extraordinary experiences one would never have were one live a hundred years... while writing I had in mind Marlene Dietrich’s work with Josef von Sternberg, especially Blonde Venus (1932), where she plays a house wife who becomes a singer, spy and prostitute, who travels the world living a life of never ending adventure." This was the film Almodóvar intended to make, but Cristina Sánchez Pascual had limited acting skills: Because of this, Almodóvar rewrote the film, giving a more prominent role to the nuns of the convent where the singer hides.

[Note: The above quote was mildly edited for punctuation and the removal of footnote notations.]

The assessment of Pascual's acting skills in the last sentence is unclear: Is it a value judgement from a Wikipedia editor? Is it attributable to the director? If so, is Almodóvar's judgement the result of a falling out with the actress? (It wouldn't be the first time — Carmen Maura is alleged to have had a falling-out with Almodóvar during the filming of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, after which the two didn't work together again for nearly twenty years.) Whatever the case, the slagging of Pascual's performance simply doesn't hold up to what's actually on-screen. There's almost certainly a story behind this: I wonder what it is?

 

Sister Manure unwinds on her bed of nails.

 

From all accounts, Dark Habits had a rocky time of it in searching for an audience. Rejected at Cannes, sidelined by the Venice Film Festival after its initial acceptance, the presentation of the film's religious content seems to have thrown off any number of people. It's a shame: There's very little criticism of religion in Dark Habits, and the depiction of the convent in which much of the story takes place clearly revolves around how unlike a typical convent is the Community of Humble Redeemers. If anything, Dark Habits is a surprisingly serious examination of faith and the search for redemption, wrapped in a quietly outrageous comedy about people learning to cope with desparate circumstances.

So let me dissent from the critics and believers unable to see past its surface features: Dark Habits is a film that I would recommend to any God-fearing filmgoer willing to look past the drug abuse, brief toplessness and general weirdness and see instead the heartfelt and enjoyable story underneath. Pedro Almodóvar's direction is assured, his screenplay is well-composed and his cast of performers is first rate — Dark Habits is Almodóvar's first major film, and a solid premonition of any number of artistic successes to come, and that's the God's-honest truth.

 

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