I certainly didn’t expect a documentary about nuns to start with one asking, “Can you smell the pot?” And yet, it’s very fitting for the story of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, located in Los Angeles, who were anything but conventional. This documentary by Pedro Kos tells the story of how these nuns fought for their freedom in the 1960s against an overbearing cardinal determined to keep them from progress.
The film does an excellent job at taking the viewer through the journey of these women from the process of becoming a nun to their conflict with the Church in 1968. It highlights the conditions under which they were made to teach in LA schools run by Cardinal McIntyre. They often had more than sixty students in a classroom and many had no training and were pursuing their college degrees at the same time.
It chronicles the ways in which the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart began to rebel against the strict constraints under which they lived, from the required wearing of the habit to the inability to pursue a different path than teaching. It also touches on how these women got involved in the social movements of the 1960s.
One of the most interesting parts is about the nuns who taught at the Immaculate Heart College and the incredible work that was done there, from scientific research to inventive artwork. Many of the nuns teaching there were professionally ambitious and got their PhDs. The documentary overall challenges what the audience might think of nuns. It explains that many women in the first half of the twentieth century joined a religious order simply to avoid marriage in a very patriarchal society.
The women themselves are remarkably likable from Helen Kelley to Mary Lenore. The most fascinating is the artist Corita Kent, or Sister Mary Corita, whose work is still admired today. She defied the ideas of what religious art was and created pieces that spoke to controversial contemporary topics. I would love to see a biopic made about her.
The filmmaking of this documentary is as excellent as the content. It layers archival footage and interviews with newspaper headlines and new interviews with the nuns and men involved in the Church. Most notably, it has amazing graphics that are as striking as the work of these women.
“Rebel Hearts” is engaging regardless of what your relationship with religion is. It focuses its critics not on religion, but on the Catholic Church and Cardinal McIntyre specifically in a way that wouldn’t alienate religious viewers. But as an agnostic, I found it entirely fascinating because the women themselves were so extraordinary.
At one point, one of them remarks, “We did what we thought was right.” In a year like 2021, with so many stories of injustice being brought to the surface, it’s refreshing to hear the tale of a group of women who fought for better treatment for themselves and their peers, against the hypocrisy of their organization. I wasn’t prepared for how touching I found the story of “Rebel Hearts.” Don’t be surprised if you get a bit teary-eyed.