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story.lead_photo.caption Sister Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza) berates the help, the new gardener Massetto (Dave Franco), who pretends to not hear a word she’s screaming in Jeff Baena’s The Little Hours, a comedy set in a 14-century Italian monastery.

I never got around to reading Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron.

I had my chances; I can visualize the copy on my parents' bookshelf, squeezed in between the 10-volume set of Grolier Classics (40 abridged versions of such works as Jane Eyre, Moby Dick, and -- my favorite as a 10-year-old -- La Rochefoucauld's Maxims and Reflections) and the three-volume Bulfinch's Mythology. But while I've heard The Decameron described and cited so often that I feel like I know all about it, my only direct experience with it has been a few excerpts.

The Little Hours

88 Cast: Alison Brie, Dave Franco, Kate Micucci, Aubrey Plaza, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Fred Armisen, Jemima Kirke, Nick Offerman, Lauren Weedman, Adam Pally, Jon Gabrus

Director: Jeff Baena

Rating: R, for graphic nudity, sexual content and language

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

I know there are bawdy bits. But I don't think the book is quite what Jeff (Life After Beth, Joshy) Baena's The Little Hours suggests.

Inspired by stories in Boccaccio's book, the film is the funniest thing I've seen all year; a Monty Pythonesque romp through a 14th-century Italian convent filled with people with thoroughly modern sensibilities and timelessly human predilections. Beautifully and straightforwardly shot on location in northwest Tuscany, with the actors in appropriately period attire, the movie is nevertheless driven by millennial snark and entitlement as three wonderfully impious nuns -- Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza), Alessandra (Alison Brie) and Ginerva (Kate Micucci) -- banter and cavort. The movie won me over seconds after the opening titles when the sisters profanely rain hell on the poor convent handyman who dares to bid them "good morning."

Apparently "the pervert" is not to look at, much less speak to, them.

And yes, it's pretty much a one-note joke, watching these antique figures comport themselves in modern ways (the acting, while transposed to a 21st-century key, is actually fairly naturalistic and dry), the cast is able to sustain it for the length of the film. In one sense it's like a 90-minute Saturday Night Live skit -- but it's one that doesn't outstay its welcome.

So the sisters' constant abuse eventually causes the handyman to resign, leaving Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly) in the lurch. But fortunately, a slightly tipsy Tommasso encounters Massetto (Dave Franco), a strapping youth on the run from his master, brutal Lord Bruno (Nick Offerman), who has discovered Massetto's affair with mistress Francesca (a wonderfully deadpan Lauren Weedman). Tommasso offers Massetto the handyman's job -- and asylum at the convent -- if he agrees to pretend to be deaf and unable to speak (and therefore imperious to the sisters' verbal assaults).

Franco, with his handsome blankness concealing an impish goofiness, is perfectly cast as simple but compliant Massetto, who soon finds himself an object of desire as each of the sisters comes to him in her turn to satisfy more than curiosity.

It should be pointed out that The Little Hours is one of those films that's going to provoke a wide range of responses -- some will likely find it blasphemous, others might be underwhelmed by its reliance on the contrast between our expectations for period characters and the contemporary attitudes and language we encounter. But if you're a fan of HBO's Veep or Monty Python and the Holy Grail, you'll probably appreciate this curious little gem.

MovieStyle on 09/01/2017

Print Headline: The Little Hours

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