By Andrea Thompson
Rebel nuns sticking it to the patriarchy isn’t going to be a tough sell by any stretch, but “Rebel Hearts” is still determined to not only uplift, but do justice to the women it’s profiling and just what gave them a communal backbone of such stuff that they eventually chose to defy the Vatican itself. Director Pedro Kos has a few films under his belt, but he’s primarily worked as an editor, and his technical prowess is evident in the stylishly artistic flourishes that take inspiration from the art of Corita Kent, one of the film’s subjects who eventually became a renowned pop artist.
Like most stories about progress, “Rebel Hearts” really gets going in the 60s, a time of big changes which the Church was by no means immune from. The sisters of Immaculate Heart College in Hollywood were certainly in a unique position to appreciate it. Unlike nuns who taught at other Catholic schools, they were actually trained to teach, had college degrees, and were relatively free to build an institution that became highly renowned for its achievements, be they in science, music, art, or other departments. Most crucially, they also owned the college themselves, and experimentation, discussion, and being a part of the world was a given.
As the Church was experimenting with reforms to stay relevant in a rapidly modernizing and changing world, various Catholic institutions were also encouraged to try their hand at changing things up. However, the sisters’ open devotion to social justice causes, which eventually led them to demand control over their lives, eventually led to a conflict with a Church that was equally vocal in its misogyny. By the time they tried to tighten their grasp on the sisters’ bodies and lives, they felt it was too late for them to regress, and 315 of them left the Church, with only 65 opting to remain.
It’s a jaw-dropping series of events that includes a spiritual awakening with Coretta Scott King in Selma of 1965, and the gradual, general awakening of a community that decided to give themselves the kind of empowerment they sought to give others, and seemed to be supported by nearly everyone in their community, except for those who were most obligated to do right by them.
Kos treats them with too much reverence, with precious few flaws to be found in these very, still recognizably human women. It’s hard to blame him in view of their staggering achievements and awe-inspiring, decades-long history of advocating for change. They may take their inspiration from Biblical teachings, but their life’s work, particularly for the multitude the documentary doesn’t have the runtime to do justice to, brings a more secular quote to mind from another remarkable woman: “For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”