An early episode in Dark Habits showing a group of cloistered nuns’ giddy excitement over the declaration by Mother Superior Julia (Julieta Serrano) that a wayward lounge singer named Yolanda Bell (Cristina Sánchez Pascual) has sought refuge in the convent after her lover’s accidental drug overdose encapsulates the subversive, sardonic humor of Pedro Almodóvar: “Very soon, this will be full of murderesses, drug addicts, prostitutes… just like before. Praise be to God.” Once a bustling haven for people in crisis, the hospice beds in the Order of Humble Redeemers now lay empty, and the vain and selfish Marquesa (Mary Carrillo) has decided to discontinue the convent’s annuity under the pretense of economizing. With few opportunities for spiritual ministry, the nuns have begun to indulge in their own idiosyncratic pursuits in order to pass idle time, adopting disagreeable names in order to reinforce a sense of humility. The nurturing Sor Perdida [Sister Damned] (Carmen Maura) compulsively cleans the convent and coddles all the animals under her care, including an overgrown pet tiger. The ascetic Sor Estiércol [Sister Manure] (Marisa Paredes) is consumed by thoughts of penitence and corporal self-sacrifice, and is prone to hallucinations. The overcurious Sor Rata de Callejón [Sister Sewer Rat] (Chus Lampreave) indulges in lurid, romance novels that she smuggles into the convent through her sister’s periodic visits. The unassuming Sor Víbora [Sister Snake] (Lina Canalejas), tailors seasonal fashion collections for dressing the statues of the Virgin Mary. Determined to win the trust of the enigmatic and emotionally detached Yolanda, the Mother Superior offers her the best accommodations – the lavish room of a nun named Sor Virginia, the Marquesa’s daughter, who was killed in Africa. However, as the nuns become resigned to a life of distraction and excess, will their attempts to rehabilitate Yolanda renew their sense of divine purpose?
Reminiscent of Robert Bresson’s Les Anges du Péché, Dark Habits is a wickedly funny, irreverent, and outrageous portrait of aimlessness, spiritual desolation, and moral bankruptcy. Pedro Almodóvar’s idiosyncratic fusion of highly formalized, often surreal visual imagery (saturated primary colors, muted and diffused lighting, kitschy interiors) and comedic melodrama serves as a thematic foil in order to explore crisis of faith and the innate hypocrisy and encroachment of secularism in institutional religion: the ironic reunion between the successful call girls and the destitute nuns selling an odd assortment of goods (cakes, flowers, and peppers) at the market; the melancholic and sentimental ballad of unrequited love and loss that covertly expresses the Mother Superior’s spiritual crisis; the convent’s crumbling structure that figuratively manifests the nuns’ moral decay; Yolanda’s facial imprint on a handkerchief that serves as a tawdry surrogate relic for the Shroud of Turin. Through the convent’s bizarre and misguided attempts to spiritually reconnect through escapism, distraction, and illusion, Dark Habits reflects the inherent incongruence and corruption of seeking redemption and existential purpose in an increasingly chaotic, amoral, and hedonistic world.
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