Nuns on drugs

Pedro Almodovar’s Entre tinieblas (English title: Dark Habits), released in 1984, is in some respects very silly. It involves a nightclub singer who takes refuge from the police in a convent run by drug-addicted nuns, who are meanwhile attempting to convince a wealthy woman to continue her late husband’s patronage. So, basically we have a mash-up of two overly familiar movie plots (fleeing the police, and fund raising on behalf of a scrappy, embattled institution)—but fortunately for us, the film is only marginally concerned with telling this story. Instead, we get lots of stuff like nuns shooting up and a tiger stalking around in the convent garden. These are shock tactics, intentionally outrageous, meant to catch our attention through the force of their absurdity, through the audacity of the ways in which they violate conventions and upend our sense of how the world is supposed to be ordered. But there’s considerable danger in using this kind of device: outrageousness for the sake of outrageousness tends to become tedious with repetition. There’s only so many times a film can throw something shocking at you before you catch on to the technique, and after that, any subsequent shocks are bound to lose their punch.

But this is Almodovar we’re talking about here. Shock and absurdity are a big part of his stock in trade—yet he’s almost always able to use those techniques not just to stage gags or to manipulate the audience, but instead to create moments of beauty and emotional power. Dark Habits lacks the lyrical loveliness and thematic sophistication of Talk to Her or Volver—but all the same, here and there you can see traces of the same sensibilities and techniques that make those more recent films so successful. One example: when the nightclub singer enters her room at the convent for the first time, and the camera lingers with a decidedly erotic energy on the objects around her, I was reminded of the playful, mysterious, dark and sexual tone that pervades Talk to Her and All About My Mother, in which straightforward shots often have evocatively seamy subtexts, hinting at all the joy, pain, sex, wildness, and revelation that’s always threatening to bubble up from just beneath the perfectly-composed warmth and calmness of the camera. I saw it too in the boredom in the expression of the nun who feeds the tiger through metal bars, and scolds him like an errant toddler when he bats his enormous paw at her and growls. One of Almodovar’s great strengths is his ability to find the normal and the mundane in the wild and the absurd—it’s a way of bringing all the drug addiction and weird sex and so on into focus and comprehensibility. Watching an Almodovar film, you come to believe that the world is far stranger and wilder than you’ve ever imagined—–but at the same time you also become convinced that all such weirdness is entirely normal.

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