“Damn everything that is grim, dull, motionless, unrisking, inward turning, damn everything that won’t get in the circle, that won’t enjoy, that won’t throw its heart into the tension, surprise, fear and delight of the circus, the round world, full of existence....”
-Sr. Helen Kelley, President of Immaculate Heart Community (1993–1996)
Visually incantatory and deeply affecting, Rebel Hearts takes us on a journey through a singularly important moment in modern Catholic history. Using a wide array of sources, including archival television footage and one-on-one interviews, and saturated with the flower-power colors of pop art, including Una Lorenzen’s ingenious animation (think Yellow Submarine meets Madeline), the film tells the story of the sisters of the Los Angeles congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM), who were responsible for educating thousands of children in the Catholic school system during the city’s postwar population boom. The film depicts the sisters laboring under exploitative conditions, eventually clashing with their diocese’s unyielding and parsimonious “education Cardinal,” James Francis McIntyre, whose ecclesial authority the women, with their smarts and their principles, both overwhelmed and undermined. Led by their astute and courageous mother general, Anita Caspary, during their most tumultuous years (1963–73), the sisters held fast to both their commitment to the role of conscience in religious life and their confidence in the righteousness of their own decision-making. They attracted national attention for how their story played out against the wider cultural clashes of the feminist movement and for helping fuel the renewal associated with the Second Vatican Council. Rebel Hearts provides a slice of the cultural revolution of the ’60s and ’70s as experienced by an extraordinary group of women nestled in the heart of Hollywood. Without sacrificing the particularities of its tale, the film still conveys the universal power of courage and creativity to ignite and sustain individual lives and communities.
Twenty years in the making, Rebel Hearts was conceived of by producer Shawnee Isaac Smith, who co-wrote the documentary with Erin Barnett. (It is directed by Pedro Kos.) In spite of its long gestation, it never feels stale thanks to the easy unfolding of its narrative arc. This is in part because the film coaxes individual personalities into view via a series of interviews, some conducted by major television network personalities in the 1960s and ’70s, when the IHM sisters achieved something like celebrity status, and some conducted more recently by the filmmakers. We thus hear from the sisters at various points in their youth, middle age, and old age, with an intimacy more frequently reserved for family.
We learn from Caspary that she was a student at the sisters’ Immaculate Heart College, where her teachers became her models. After graduating in 1936, she joined the congregation and went on to receive her PhD in English from Stanford University. There is a long history of women like Caspary, for whom single-sex religious communities were an alternative marriage and motherhood, offering instead opportunities for education and support for intellectual pursuits. But the fantasy of an expansive life of the mind was compromised for Caspary and many of her sisters: freedom from a controlling male presence remained distant from their day-to-day reality, with the longed-for life of the mind undermined by the relentless tedium of household obligations and the thirst for spiritual investigation dulled by rote learning. Interviewees recount long hours polishing, dusting, and memorizing the Catechism, a sequence of chores each as desiccating as the other. The filmmakers juxtapose black-and-white stills of the sisters in full-length habits, coifs and veils in place, with colorful magazine advertisements of women attired in happy-housewife, bodice-bearing smocks and brandishing feather dusters with aplomb. The film makes its point: the nuns traded one authority for another; women are to serve men, and in the garb of their preference, body-hiding or body-hugging, depending on male proclivities.