Like a more positive, but no less galling, companion to Ryan White’s 2017 Netflix doc series The Keepers, director Pedro Kos’s new documentary Rebel Hearts shows Catholic Church authoritarianism and hypocrisy from the point of view of nuns. The film is a lively and informative look at Los Angeles’s Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters, an order that ran their own college in Los Feliz outside of diocese rule.
By the mid-60s, the IHM sisters were increasingly committed to social justice issues and embraced a progressive, respectful relationship with the community, students and the outside world. But the nuns’ independence, activism and popularity — especially Sister Corita Kent who was gaining fame and followers as an artist — ran afoul of the church’s male hierarchy, particularly Cardinal James McIntyre. A former Wall Street operative, McIntyre ran the Archdiocese of Los Angeles from 1948 to 1970 like a corporate cutthroat. He opened dozens of Catholic schools with the IHM Sisters providing free labor and forced to abide by arbitrary rules. When the nuns tried to plead the case for more liberal and cooperative working conditions and less restrictive dress, they were rebuffed.
Eventually, most of them, some 300 sisters, left the IHM (penniless, of course) and formed their own independent religious community. The footage and photos of these intelligent, compassion, hard working nuns in their modest attire in contrast to the cardinals and bishops in their gaudy robes and elaborate mitres, speaks volumes about the Catholic Church’s foundational values. Yet unlike The Keepers, which traces the still unsolved 1971 murder of a Baltimore nun likely because she was about to blow the whistle on systematic sexual abuse by priests, the captivating nuns in Rebel Hearts at least had agency. They decided, however painfully, to leave an institution that repeatedly disregarded their opinions and participation and had no interest in changing; not then, not ever.