Watching Pedro Kos’ documentary Rebel Hearts, it’s hard not to wonder what the world would be like if every person of faith was as accepting, loving, committed, and progressive as the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Since that is (very obviously) not the case, the Sisters’ story of standing up to the oppressive Catholic church in the 1960s and finding their own way to fulfill their vows is all the more inspiring.
Using a combination of insightful interviews collected by producer Shawnee Isaac Smith and rich archival footage, Kos creates a detailed picture of what life was like for American Catholic nuns in the middle of the 20th century. Subjected to countless rules (one Sister compares it to the regulations imposed upon people who’ve been institutionalized) and farmed out as free, unqualified labor to a wide network of Catholic schools in Southern California, the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart were firmly under the thumb of Cardinal James McIntyre, the powerful — and extremely patriarchal — archbishop of Los Angeles.
But as many of the Sisters studied and earned degrees at Immaculate Heart College, they started questioning the traditions that ruled their lives and looking for opportunities to help others through social activism. Some, like renowned pop artist Sister Corita Kent, expressed themselves through radical art. Others marched in Selma alongside Martin Luther King Jr. They embraced the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (aka Vatican II), only to see those reforms squelched by people afraid of change and progress, which also threatened the Sisters’ own way of life. The one thing they did not do was back down.
In the words of one Sister, the order is committed to protesting all forms of unjust domination “not without anger, but without hatred or contempt.” By protesting with joy, the Sisters prove over and over again that they embody the truest spirit of the God they love and serve faithfully. And in telling their story, Rebel Hearts provides an inspirational example for those who want to make a real difference in the world. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Nell Minow: It is heartening to learn that in the era of cute, cheerful, compliant nuns like those in The Sound of Music and The Flying Nun and The Singing Nun there were women who thought deeply about their faith and put it into action with “joyful protest.” The integrity and persistence of these women is profoundly inspiring and very much in the spirit of another wonderful documentary, Nuns on the Bus. The present-day interviews and archival footage are beautifully blended, with wit and a joyful spirit that perfectly matches its subjects. Along Came Mary indeed!
Susan Wloszczyna: Watching the documentary Rebel Hearts, I have seen how the rigid and outwardly sexist patriarchal hierarchy of the Catholic church took advantage of nuns at a time when women in general were fighting for their rights, both in their workplaces and in their homes. The film starts off with former nun Helen Kelley attending the Woman’s March in 2018 while another sister brings up the 2017 Charlottesville rally as an example of how the times haven’t changed as much as we think they have.Read full review.
Pam Grady: When Vatican II reforms offered the promise of a more liberal Catholic church at the same time as the civil rights, antiwar, and youth movements were roiling American society, the nuns of the Immaculate Heart of Mary order in Los Angeles seized the moment. But their attempts to modernize their order, and in claiming their autonomy, better serve their community and the world at large, ran into the brick wall of right-wing prelate Cardinal James Francis McIntyre. Pedro Kos’ enthralling documentary limns a fascinating moment in church and American history, a rebellion waged by devout women for whom submitting to the unreasonable demands of the patriarchy was never going to be an option. Employing insightful interviews, rich archival footage, witty animated sequences, and the eye-popping artwork of Sister Mary Corita (one of the key heretics in the Cardinal’s eyes), Kos spins a riveting chronicle while simultaneously paying homage to these bad-ass sisters doing it for themselves.
Marilyn Ferdinand There is little in human invention more patriarchal than religion. Controlling women seems to be a major part of most religions, and when progress comes to a society, the repressive forces of institutional religion leap forward to tamp it down. Rebel Hearts chronicles how the progressive movements of the 1960s reached into the Los Angeles-based Immaculate Heart of Mary order of the Roman Catholic Church and awakened a desire in its nuns to throw off the shackles of their male overlords—in this case, James Cardinal McIntyre, Archbishop of Los Angeles—and conduct their religious and worldly affairs according to their own needs and aspirations. Interviews with the rebel nuns, particularly Anita Caspary, who was the mother general of the order, make clear that the nuns never lost their love of their religion, only their unquestioning obedience to male authorities who used them as unpaid labor in Catholic schools without providing them with proper training or reasonable class sizes and who soon slammed the door on their experimentation with their attire and communal life that the reforms of Vatican II prompted. The nuns gave up a lot to live their truth, but never their dedication to humanity and each other. This is an inspiring and enlightening look at a rarely seen aspect of the women’s liberation movement.
Leslie Combemale Rebel Hearts may not call up personal experiences for many who watch it, but it will foster a new understanding and respect for women in religious orders. Mostly, though, it will enlighten viewers about an amazing group of heroines who were unwilling to shrink in the face of the patriarchy that was controlling or misogynistic, and denounced their every decision as though ordained by God to do so. Hooray for these badass women. I think Mary, Mother of their God, would be proud. Read full review.
Loren King Eventually, 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. Read full review.
Jennifer Merin Rebel Hearts is a compelling from-the-heart documentary that follows The Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a sisterhood of devoted nuns who bravely stood up to the demeaning and oppressive patriarchy of the Catholic Church to fight for the right to be treated as equals, especially with regard to education and the expression of their credo through art, particularly the controversial graphics of Sister Mary Corita Kent. Read full review.
Sandie Angulo Chen: Rebel Hearts is a fascinating documentary about how a pioneering group of Los Angeles nuns, the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who in the 1960s sought to modernize the rules of their religious practices, engaged in civil rights, migrants’ rights, women’s rights and other social justice advocacy. Filmmaker Pedro Kos chronicles how the nuns, many of whom had PhDs and taught at Immaculate Heart College, drew the ire of a powerful Cardinal who felt their actions (particularly the increasingly popular art of a sister named Corita, whose works garnered public attention) were at worst blasphemous. An educational and moving example of how these deeply faithful women navigated the patriarchy of the Catholic Church.
Liz Whittemore Rebel Hearts is the documentary I needed as an 8th grade Catholic school student. Being told by my religion teacher that if I had gone home and told my mother that I was gay, it would be the equivalent of telling her I had murdered someone did not go over well. I stood on my chair and told her, “I’m done.” It was quite the spectacular in 1995. Little did I know I would have been applauded by The Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. These are the feminist icons that every school girl under Church patriarchal rule must learn about. Rebel Hearts combines archival footage, sit down interviews, and some of the most gorgeous animation to tell us about a group of nuns like no other. It vibrates with joy and pure gumption. It’s a riveting and inspiring story of women breaking one of the oldest molds. Guided by faith and the power of their own understanding of God and self, they made waves that can still be felt today. The Sisters give all women hope that even change in the Vatican is possible. Rebel Hearts makes me think that maybe, just maybe there might be a female priest in my lifetime. Never say never. The fight continues for this “Lapsed Catholic”.
Cate Marquis Rebel Hearts is a gem of a documentary, about a group of determined nuns, the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Los Angeles, who stood up to the oppressive patriarchy of the local Cardinal of the Catholic Church in the 1960s. The nuns ran their own college, where the sisters had pursued PhDs in the fields of the interests and taught, excelling in fields such as science, music and art, while often engaging in community and social activism, freedoms that the bishop wanted to rein in. But this revealing documentary also puts the sisters’ story in the context of its era, giving a brief history of a remarkable time of change – as women went from the suffocating restrictions of the 1950s when housewife was the only approved role, and also as the time of the Civil Rights movement, with new freedoms in the arts and the rise of social activism. Told through the voices of the women themselves, director Pedro Kos uses a creative mix of interviews, animation, archival footage combined with old newspaper articles to create an entertaining, lively and unforgettable film.
Title: Rebel Hearts
Director: Pedro Kos
Release Date: June 27, 2021
Running Time: 99 minutes
Screenwriters: Erin Barnett, Pedro Kos, Shawnee Isaac Smith
Distribution Company: Discovery+
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Marina Antunes, Nikki Baughan, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna
Edited by Jennifer Merin