Losing My Religion

Dark Habits (1983)

illustration by Dani Manning

Are you happy here?
—Happy? I don’t know.
I do all I can.
—It doesn’t depend on you.

Pedro Almodóvar was born in 1949 in a small pastoral town in Castile-La Mancha. His father was a winemaker and his mother was a scribe, and at the age of eight, he was sent to a Catholic boarding school in Extremadura because his parents wanted him to become a priest. This vocational pursuit was short-lived, for it was in the remote western city that Pedro took his first trip to the movies. The divine light, it turned out, came not from the stained glass of his school’s chapel or through cracks in the sky as drawn on the altarpiece, but from another contraption—one that projected beautiful images onto a bright screen. 

Against mom and dad’s wishes, he moved to Madrid in 1967 with hopes of making films of his own. At the time, however, General Francisco Franco’s fascist regime had overtaken the country, repressing all freedom of expression and dissolving major arts institutions such as Madrid’s National School of Cinema. For the next 12 years, Pedro worked odd jobs while becoming a self-taught cinéaste. It wasn’t until 1980—five years after the end of Francoist Spain—that his first feature film, Pepi, Luci, Bom, was finally released.

Inspired by La Movida Madrileña, the city’s countercultural renaissance that the director helped champion following Franco’s death, Pepi and Almodóvar’s subsequent film, Labyrinth of Passion (1982), were shock comedies that concerned themselves with the subculture’s lurid world of sex, drugs, and crime. Their colorful characters—a masochistic housewife, a nympho pop star, a gay Saudi prince, a lesbian punk rocker, and anyone else you might see mentioned in Corinthians 6:9—were rebellious enough to challenge an oppressive existence post-Franco, but too vapid and perfidious to create a long-lasting impression. Much like an orgy of sleazy sideshow performers, they were created to abuse, appall, and maybe titillate, but their thrills were easily discarded and eventually forgotten.

Following Labyrinth, Almodóvar was approached by Hervé Hachuel, a millionaire oil and real estate tycoon, and the beau of an emerging actress who’d briefly appeared in his sophomore effort. Hachuel’s relationship with the actress, Cristina Sánchez Pascual, was on the rocks. Desperate to get her to stay with him, he’d created the production company Tesauro in order to fund projects that would help her pursue an acting career. According to Almodóvar, Hachuel had listed icons Luis García Berlanga, Iván Zulueta, and himself as the three directors she most wanted to work with. The other two collaborations would never come to fruition. 

“I immediately asked whether Cristina S. Pascual was to be the star. ‘Of course not,’ he replied. But by the way he said it, I knew he meant the opposite,” the director told author Frédéric Strauss for his book Almodóvar on Almodóvar (2006), adding: “He said the same thing to Berlanga, who wrote a part for her.”

The intrepid filmmaker approached the project with an open mind. Inspired by Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg’s collaboration in Blonde Venus (1932), the character he created for Pascual was a free-spirited artist who led a tumultuous yet extraordinary life tinged by drugs, alcohol, and celebrity ennui. But when it became clear that Pascual’s acting experience was too limited1 to make this dream a reality, Almodóvar had to refocus.

“The important thing…is not the initial idea of the script, but what comes out of it once I start working on it,” he told Strauss. 

Almodóvar rewrote the script, dividing the screen time between cast members to tell the story of multiple women, each fascinating in their own ways. The aptly titled Dark Habits (1983) focuses on Yolanda (Pascual), a cabaret singer on the run who’s taken in by a local convent of nuns who refer to themselves as the Humiliated Redeemers. Previously, the Redeemers’ primary source of finance was a haughty Marchioness (Mary Carrillo), whose headstrong daughter, Virginia, had been sent to the convent unwillingly; after Virginia died on a mission trip in Africa, the Marchioness stopped funding the convent. Once a haven for fallen women, the place is now in decay. When Yolanda arrives, the Mother Superior (Julieta Serrano)—a heroin-addicted lesbian who uses her work to get close to needy young women—immediately becomes infatuated with her. 

Low on funds and with little to do, the nuns—all of whom carry grotesque names to fulfill their humility vows—have developed strange pastimes: Sister Damned (Carmen Maura) takes care of a fully grown pet tiger, hidden in the convent garden; Sister Manure (Marisa Paredes) mutilates herself as penance for having killed a man in her youth; Sister Alley Rat (Chus Lampreave) writes erotic fiction based on the real-life stories of the ill-fated souls previously under the convent’s care; and Sister Viper (Lina Canalejas) is secretly in love with the monastery’s priest (Miguel Zúñiga), with whom she stitches elaborate costumes for the convent’s statues of saints. All the while, Yolanda and Mother Superior do heroin and cocaine together. 

The real drama starts when Yolanda decides to rehabilitate herself, withdrawing from these illicit substances, and, by extent, Mother Superior. Mother Superior, of course, does not take Yolanda’s rejection lightly. Through Mother Superior’s figurative caging of Yolanda and Yolanda’s hurtful defiance of Mother Superior, the women’s relationship then starts to resemble that of an injured Sister Damned and her clawing pet tiger—the film’s ultimate symbol of festering desire.

Dark Habits belongs to a particularly egregious genre of exploitation cinema, and one that has its roots in the Roman Catholic trenches of Italy and Spain. Reaching its peak during the 1960s and ‘70s thanks to the likes of directors Jesús Franco, Giulio Berruti, and Luis Buñuel (himself a major inspiration to Almodóvar), nunsploitation cinema is known for satirizing religious hierarchies through heavy depictions of sexual deviance, torture, and male fragility. Though its male proponents’ approach to these ideas usually leaned into fetishism and more than a few sexist tropes, the genre remains compelling due to its exploration of sexual repression and the consequences of occulting these desires of the flesh. 

Although Almodóvar has since distanced himself from his third feature, citing the lack of creative control during pre-production, his hardships were really a blessing in disguise. As any Almodóvar fan knows, and as critic Emanuel Levy summarized so succinctly in his book Gay Directors, Gay Films? in 2015, “For him, the greatest sin in life is not deviance or crime, but the denial of desire and feeling.” The nunsploitation genre was one that the openly gay and atheist director was destined to adopt at least once, and he did so through a surprisingly mature melodrama that pays tribute to the form in more ways than one.

Through the dead nun Virginia, Almodóvar references Buñuel’s Viridiana (1961) and Denis Diderot’s seminal 18th-century novel La Religieuse (which Viridiana is partially based on). Both are heavy indictments of clerical corruption and institutionalized sexism, focusing on a nun’s attempts to escape the convent that her conservative parents have sent her to against her will. In Almodóvar’s film, this character is more an invisible presence akin to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, acting as a grim omen for Yolanda, who’s given Virginia’s old room upon arrival. Will she repeat the same fate as she wrestles the clutches of the domineering Mother Superior? Like Virginia, who was robbed of her own free will, the characters in Dark Habits all experience repression in different ways, be it Manure’s fastings and self-harm, Viper and the priest’s inability to express their love for one another, or Alley Rat’s yearning for what lies outside the convent walls—which she could leave if only she had the courage to. 

Like Almodóvar, the nuns migrated to Madrid from the remote town of Albacete in order to help women who’d been taken advantage of or left impoverished in the rapidly modernizing city. They quickly face a culture clash of their own amid Madrid’s delayed progression in the wake of Franco’s death. As in any melodrama, this enacts a heavy burden on the nuns, who have trouble adjusting to their surroundings. As critic Marvin D’Lugo noted in his 2006 book Pedro Almodóvar, the nuns’ newfound hobbies—be it Alley Rat’s writing endeavors, Viper and the priest’s shared love for movie musicals, or Manure and Mother Superior’s substance abuse—prove them to be willing consumers of a new popular culture, even as they physically remain hidden in the convent.

Easily the most fascinating character in the film, Mother Superior embodies this clash between modernity and tradition, part of a greater existential crisis that’s further exacerbated by her unrequited love for Yolanda, guilt over Virginia’s death, and the possibility of her convent’s dissolution. Given the power dynamic between her and the women she pursues over the course of the movie, it would’ve been easy to make her a villain in the vein of his contemporaries’ work, but Almodóvar, as always, is far more interested in moral ambiguity here. A modern point of comparison would be Olivia Colman’s queen in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite (2018)—another elevated figure who ends up losing the power play she gets warped in as a result of her own vices. While both heroines stop short of being entirely unlikeable due to the vulnerability their actresses lend them, the biggest difference between Queen Anne and the Reverend Mother is that the Reverend Mother does not provide the film’s comic relief. Her ethos is summarized in the scene where Yolanda visits her office, decorated with photographs of famous divas such as Brigitte Bardot, Marilyn Monroe, and Marlene Dietrich, or “great female sinners,” as she calls them.

“It’s in imperfect creatures that God finds all his greatness. Jesus didn’t die on the cross to save saints, but to redeem sinners,” she explains. “When I look at some of these women, I feel very grateful to them. Thanks to them, God dies and comes back to life every day.”

The director echoed this sentiment to Strauss in 1996: 

“To save man, Christ became man and experienced man’s weakness,” he said. In order to save these wretched women, the nuns must understand the sin—“be close to them,” and, in a way, become them.

He went on to compare Mother Superior’s fascination with these women to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Saint Genet—inherently religious and based partially in pity. However, the wide-eyed ingenuity Serrano lends her character gestures towards something else as well. Admiration isn’t the same as attraction, but for queer people, the two often converge. Aspirations are enticing, and sometimes the line between wanting someone and wanting to be someone blurs. In Mother Superior’s case, the women’s autonomy—no matter how destructive—is something she both admires and desires.

It would be sleazy for the Reverend Mother to use her charity work as a means to meet women like Yolanda if not for the fact that, through her own self-destructive habits, she ends up losing them, winding up more wretched each time. At the end of the film, the convent closes and everyone except Mother Superior and the endlessly devoted Sister Manure do what’s best for them—Viper and the priest renounce their positions within the clergy and decide to spend the rest of their lives together; Damned moves back to her village, leaving the hazardous tiger behind; and Alley Rat joins Yolanda in taking up the Marchioness’ offer to stay at her residence until the police give up their search for the singer. Through Yolanda’s betrayal and eventual release, Mother Superior does, in fact, become the sin as the sinner is saved.

Dark Habits’ critique is not so much of religion, but of any rigid authoritarian institution that suppresses liberty and desire—the church included. Still, Cannes rejected it on account of sacrilege. It went on to premiere at Venice, though not as an official selection as it offended a substantial chunk of its voting committee. Although the critical reception for it ended up leaning positive, the film was largely misunderstood upon release, with Italian critics either praising Almodóvar’s supposed attack on the Catholic Church or condemning it. 

Three years later, Almodóvar would create his own production company, El Deseo, together with his brother Agustín, in order to ensure creative control over future projects. His next film, 1984’s laborious What Have I Done to Deserve This?, would potpourri crushing melodrama and transgressive comedy in a similar fashion, before the director dedicated himself fully to the former with Matador (1986) and Law of Desire (1987), and achieved international stardom with the latter through Women on the Verge of A Nervous Breakdown (1988). Other more refined films would explore his love-hate relationship with the Church, with Bad Education (2004) tackling clerical sex abuse and the stark image of a pregnant nun embodying his worship of women and their roles as nurturers in All About My Mother (1999).

As for Dark Habits, Almodóvar has spent the decades since dropping qualifiers whenever the film gets acknowledged in retrospectives, distancing himself from the project but also defending it against anti-religious readings and other “shallow interpretations” of his work:

“The idea of the film was entirely mine, but Dark Habits became a producer’s film,” he’d tell Strauss a decade after its release.

Though it doesn’t get the recognition it deserves, Dark Habits remains a jewel in its singular filmmaker’s body of work—one that tends to go unrecognized only because of the volume of hits it’s buried amongst. A staggering depiction of what it means to come to terms with the past, it remains a testament to love as faith and faith as art.

  1. By his account, at least. This critic enjoyed her performance.