Today: April 21, 2024

Dark Habits

While Pedro Almodóvar is now one of the best known and most widely-respected figures in European cinema, it is easy to forget that he began his career making underground films in the shadows of Europe’s last surviving fascist regime. When General Francisco Franco finally died in 1975, Almodóvar showed his short films in bars and art galleries until the institutions responsible for regenerating Spanish culture began providing him with funding to make proper feature-length films.

Despite being Almodóvar’s third film, Dark Habits is among the least well-known of his early works. While some film historians blame this oversight on the director’s decision to distance himself from his own production, it is not surprising that a film with such an explicitly Catholic frame of reference should fail to strike a chord with British and American audiences. Now freshly restored and re-released as part of The Almodóvar Collection, Dark Habits engineers a fascinating collision between radical sexual liberation and traditional spiritual devotion.

The film opens with an homage to the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder as two fabulous leather-clad drug addicts squabble in an apartment so filthy and run-down it would need a lick of paint before qualifying as a slum: He is a writer and a user while She is a teacher who supports them both by singing in a night club. As soon as She steps through the door, He goes through her bag in search of junk but the junk turns out to be laced with strychnine and She runs out the door before the body is even cold. Desperate and with nowhere else to go, She remembers signing an autograph for a local nun and decides to seek sanctuary in the woman’s convent.

It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that monasteries and convents are nothing more than buildings full of religious people but the point of a religious community is at least partly to provide a space where the weight of social expectations ceases to be felt. The idea is that by freeing people from the need to appear competent at work, appear socially respectable to their neighbours, and appear sexually attractive to complete strangers, religious communities allow people the time and space in which to focus on spiritual matters. However, while Dark Habits is set in a convent and Almodóvar does go out of his way to stress the intensity of the religious life, the values and feelings that define his religious community are anything but holy.

The convent is run by an order known as the Humiliated Redeemers, and they devote themselves to the redemption of great sinners. What this means in practice is that the convent is run by a collection of women who struggle with both their histories and their ongoing desires. The first peculiarity creeps in when Yolanda the night club singer (Cristina Sánchez Pascual) is given a private room by a mother superior (Julieta Surrano) who seems almost impossibly eager to please. As the days pass, the mother superior introduces Yolanda to the rest of the order whilst sharing her own private supply of heroin.

Unlike contemporary Hollywood films where the main plot is buttressed by an intersecting sub-plot, Dark Habits has one main plot line that ties the singer to the mother superior and then about a dozen sub-plots exploring the relationships between all of the other characters. What this means is that the film feels less like an individualistic character study and more like the portrait of an evolving community filled with endearingly quirky characters including a nun with a secret life as a romance novelist, a nun who keeps a tiger, a nun who uses the trappings of her order to seduce vulnerable young women, a nun who spends every waking moment out of her mind on LSD, and a pair of religious figures who publicly announce their forbidden love as a means of keeping their real sexualities a secret. One of the reasons Almodóvar is said to have distanced himself from the production is that he was unhappy with the performance he got out of the night club singer Cristina Sánchez Pascual. While it is certainly true that the character begins the film as the primary protagonist before fading into the background and becoming little more than another character’s object of desire and fascination, the real reason that Cristina Sánchez Pascual disappears is that Almodóvar does amazing work with all of the supporting characters.

One of interesting things about Almodóvar’s career is that while most of his films deal with sexuality in quite a comic fashion, his work rarely comes across as either exploitative or patronising. This not only makes him singularly brilliant at handling female characters, it also allows him to steer his films in some quite unexpected directions. For example, despite revolving around a group of nuns who struggle with unusual desires and unfortunate histories, Dark Habits systematically locates the characters’ humanity and treats them all with the utmost respect. This desire to handle matters of the flesh with the same kind of high-minded seriousness that is usually afforded ‘respectable’ spiritual crises serves to both date and electrifies the film as Dark Habits now feels a lot like an attempt to understand the kind of abuses and moral compromises that led to the clerical abuse scandal. How else are we to view a film in which religious figures use their positions to seduce and silence the vulnerable? How else are we to view a film that presents giving in to your hidden desires as a moment of spiritual triumph? Never anything less that morally and spiritually serious, Almodóvar extends understanding but not forgiveness.

Upon rediscovery, it seems absolutely extraordinary that Pedro Almodóvar should have chosen to distance himself from such a complex, thought-provoking, and accomplished film. Aside from the brilliant performances and complex moral themes, Dark Habits shows that Almodóvar had learned from the great gay filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder and found inspiration in the elegant scene-setting and sexuality ambiguities of Douglas Sirk. Dark Habits is a fantastically weird little film that is long overdue a reappraisal.

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