Sundance 2021 ‘Rebel Hearts’ Review: A Portrait of Female Independence Under Religion

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When the Catholic Church called the Second Vatican Council — a meeting designed to address rapid social and technological changes in the world — in 1962, it was the most progressive thing they had done at the time. Vatican II, as it was known, brought about changes to the Church that included no longer preaching in Latin and a recommitment to a holy calling. These decisions remain divisive amongst members of the Church, but perhaps more divisive is the story of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

Pedro Kos’s Rebel Hearts documentary brings the story of these brave women to light. In a fight between tradition and progress and religion and independence, the story of the Immaculate Heart Sisters is an inspiring and moving portrayal of strong women who just wanted to do what was right. Blending striking animation with archival interviews, the film covers the socially radical times of the 1960s and the effects this had on the Catholic Church, including the women who served under it. Through these stories and its retelling of history, the documentary poses questions about how we think about religion and to what extent we should interrogate them. 

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Becoming a nun during this period in time was advantageous for Catholic women for a number of reasons, as those who were independently minded and did not want to be trapped in marriage could choose instead to enter convents. The Immaculate Heart of Mary order in Los Angeles offered something else, too: it ran a college and a high school. This offered higher education to women at a time when most women did not go to college, and provided an environment that welcomed free-thinking and learning. Immaculate Heart acted as a place ripe for progressive ideas, and the women within the community couldn’t help but adopt this attitude, too. With a membership made up of educated women who were committed to providing good to the world under their sacred vows, it was inevitable that the order’s ideas would soon clash with the traditional ways of the Church. 

Kos explores a vast range of history and personal stories throughout the documentary, from the beginnings of becoming a nun and what the order did during their years under the Church up until the ultimate showdown between the order and the Catholic Church. At every turn, the director provides insight and humanity. Interviews with the Sisters from the order are particularly revealing, depicting just how progressive they were for their time: they wanted to help people — this was, they felt, their calling from God — so how could they ignore the struggles of others during this turbulent time in history?

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Marching in Selma, advocating for education, and joining workers’ rights protests are just some of the historical events and issues that the Sisters participated in that are highlighted in the film. At the center of it all are these strong women who did not want to be told how to practice their religion. They believed so strongly in doing what was right, even if it meant going against what the Catholic Church wanted them to do. This conflict, explored in the film, poses questions about religion and obedience: while these women took vows of obedience and poverty when they became nuns, these ideas seemed ancient in the lens of all that was happening during the 1960s. 

One of the highlights of the documentary — although most of the film is extremely engaging — is Sister Corita Kent, who was the head of the art department at Immaculate Heart College. The story of her art, how it developed, and the eventual conclusion to her time with Immaculate Heart is intriguing and inspiring. Sister Corita used her art to explore religion in modern times, depicting religious figures in ways that differed greatly from traditional artwork. This angered many officials of the Church, but Kent’s artwork is still remembered today for its power, and the animation used in the film almost seems to be inspired by her style.

Rebel Hearts is not just a story of rebellious nuns. It is a discussion about how people can operate underneath their religion, and how they should be encouraged to question its intentions. The Immaculate Heart of Mary was a pocket of progressive thinking, filled with educated and passionate women. Encapsulating not just the Sisters’ struggle, but also the struggles of the times — as well as giving ample background knowledge of how the Catholic Church operates — the film is a comprehensive exploration into this very important group of people. The Sisters’ fight still continues today in the community they have built for themselves: still working under their religion, but this time on their own terms.

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