Rebel Hearts Sundance Review
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Movie Review: Rebel Hearts

Rebels with a Cause: Rebel Hearts Features the History of America’s Most Woke Catholic Nuns

Film: Rebel Hearts

Director: Pedro Kos

Category: Feature – U.S. Documentary

Catholic nuns are not the first people you would ever think of as rebels. Until you find out about the Immaculate Heart Sisters. These women tossed their habits and donned modern clothing and ideas to join social justice movements in the 1960s much to the dismay of Catholic leadership of the time in Los Angeles, California. From racial equality to women’s rights to anti-war political pop art, the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM) never held back their beliefs while keeping their faith in God.

This documentary features a collection of current interviews with active IHM sisters as well as archival footage from the Immaculate Heart College, news interviews with former members who have since passed on such as Corita Kent and Anita Caspary, and clever animation by the filmmakers to fill in any gaps. The film heavily features the work the IHM sisters did in the 1960’s and 1970’s during their biggest disagreements former Archdiocese of Los Angeles Cardinal James McIntyre and former IHM General Mother Anita Caspary and her “irreverent” nuns. The first big sticking point for the IHM sisters with the Cardinal came when McIntyre opened a huge number of Catholic schools around Los Angeles and enlisted the nuns, with no training, to teach in the schools without pay. Caspary, fighting against the exploitation of the sisters, then leveraged their convent’s ownership of the Immaculate Heart College to teach the sisters both religious ideals as well as liberal arts and science.

Immaculate Heart College was no regular Catholic college, as much time was spent studying prayer and theology as was dedicated to “experimentations,” or opportunities for the sisters to question certain religious practices and try different methods of worship. These experimentations included a variety of practices from removing the vow of silence the nuns were supposed to keep during the day to limit socialization to allowing the nuns to choose whether they wore a traditional habit or modern clothing to how the college chose to celebrate Mary’s Day as a joyous celebration with art and dancing instead of a somber ceremony. The college’s staff even included a particularly rebellious member, Sister Corita Kent, who is also known as a renowned political pop-art painter. The Mary’s Day celebration was Corita’s idea, as were her now famous paintings of the Mother Mary, which earned her specific reprimand by the Cardinal himself. After being told off for her religious paintings, Corita took it a step further and started creating extremely clear anti-war and pro civil rights political paintings (you can see all of her work at the Corita Art Center [link: https://corita.org/]), which again, did not earn her any favors with the Cardinal McIntyre. 

However, despite the Cardinal’s dismay, Kent and Caspary continued to push for the IHM sisters to stick with the work they were doing. Anita Caspary firmly believed that the experimentations and the social justice work they were doing was simply ahead of the curve and moving towards where the Catholic church should be going into the future. From protesting with the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Alabama to advocating for their own labor union to guarantee fair wages, time off, and limitations to class sizes as teachers in the Catholic schools that the Cardinal had assigned them to, the IHM sisters pushed forward with their causes. The final straw for the Archdiocese was the experimentation of the habit. The sisters were allowed by Caspary to try wearing modern clothes, if they were comfortable with it, to see if those clothes made them more approachable and helpful to those they were trying to serve in the community. Cardinal McIntyre refused to take anymore nonsense from the IHM sisters, removing them from the Catholic church. Though initally a great shock and a source of problems for the sisters, they were allowed to keep the Immaculate Heart College because they owned it (women owning property on their own was unheard of at the time), and the sisters ultimately opted to create their own community to continue practicing their religion, educating through the college, and serving the community through their activism, as well as opening the membership of the Immaculate Heart of Mary up to far more people than just the nuns themselves.

To this day, the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary continue to serve their community through activism while keeping their faith. The sisters have continued protesting on behalf of racial equality, women’s rights, environmentalism, LGBTQ+ rights, and more. Rebel Hearts is a raucous tale of strong-willed sisters who arguably practice and live the tenets of Christ and Christianity far more than so many “religious” people in America today, by serving those who are in the most need through their beliefs and activism.

Review Score: 5/5

Where Can You Watch: No details on the film’s release have been made public, but you can check in on the film’s website for updates: https://www.rebelheartsfilm.com/

Bonus content: Check out the Q&A with director Pedro Kos, and the Immaculate Heart Sisters themselves, Rosa Manriquez, Ruth Anne Murray, and Lenore Dowling, on the Sundance Youtube channel. Watch here (link: https://youtu.be/q9Zs99CtJaM)

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