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Sister Act


‘…the kind of unassuming, crowd-pleasing, light-weight but satisfying film that cinema has completely lost the formula for by 2023…’

It’s been a gritty, hardscrabble fight for recognition as a serious film critic, but that eternal battle finally pays off with a weekend spent watching the entire Sister Act franchise to date. OK, so that’s only two movies so far, but there’s a belated third one on the way, Hocus Pocus style, and with Whoopi Goldberg promising to enlist the likes of Lizzo for her feel-good cause, now feels like the time to take stock and appreciate the adventures of cheeky disruptor Deloris Van Cartier.

Originally conceived as a vehicle for Bette Midler, who probably was correct when she guessed her fans would be happier to see her as a witch than a nun, Sister Act is very much a vehicle for the personable Goldberg, on a hot streak from The Colour Purple to Jumpin’ Jack Flash. Emile Ardolino’s film has a few tonal issues as a result of rapid conception; in Reno, singer Deloris has a bad-boy gangster boyfriend (yes, Harvey Keitel) who she witnesses shooting an unfortunate goon in the face. As part of a witness protection scheme, Deloris literally gets herself to a nunnery, this one in San Francisco and presided over by the Reverend Mother (sourpuss Maggie Smith). How long can Deloris stay undercover before the criminal fraternity learn of her hiding place?

Long enough to win the hearts and minds of the holy rollers, and put on an all-singing Gospel rock show with the choir that makes Deloris an instant heroine, that’s exactly how long. An early scene indicates Deloris had, back in 1968, little time for religion, but Sister Act’s simple appeal actually does a neat job in working for both faith and non-faith based audiences. Deloris is described here as a ‘disruptor’, and the theory that aging institutions require disruption to freshen their ideas up is borne out by Deloris’s adventures, which climax in a nuns in a casino comic set-piece. Goldberg and Smith are a great duo ideally cast here, and the block-rockin’ choir scenes are a lot of fun with some will kent choons; classic My Guy gets retooled lyrically as My God, and so on.

Perhaps it’s a little unclear why Deloris would choose to act in such a high-profile way while supposedly undercover, but the mechanics are less important that the takeaway; that no-one is irredeemable, and in fact that redemption may well be what the church is ready to provide when appropriate. Sister Act was a huge, deserved hit, and the kind of unassuming, crowd-pleasing, lightweight but satisfying film that cinema has completely lost the formula for by 2023. A fun family film, Sister Act still works today; not every film has to be intense or world-building, and the genial lets-put-on-a show shenanigans featured here are a tonic for casual viewers. You go Deloris, go!


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  1. Your observation about Deloris as a ‘disruptor’ of an ancient institution is interesting and relates to the most basic ideas about narrative – an external agent arrives and disrupts the equilibrium of a community. Nunnery-based films have always been popular, perhaps as examples of communities of women with all the possibilities for different kinds of conflicts between the nuns that appeal to female audiences? It strikes me that structurally they are not that different from female prison films/TV series that also seem very popular with female audiences. I like Whoopi and I’m sure you are right that this is solid family entertainment. I wonder if the films do as well in the UK as in the US? The British nun comedies like Nuns on the Run (1990) seem less successful?

    • It’s one way traffic, I think, we import US product, but it rarely goes the other way. I was struck by hearing the word disruptor in a positive way in a film from 1992, but I think your right to imagine this ‘fish out of water’ theme goes back to a past narrative theme. And this tends towards a female audience for sure; I’ve never quite understood why women love to see women’s prison dramas. As nunspolitation goes, this is fairly harmless…

    • I think the Sister Act musical has played everywhere, it’s a stone cold classic far better than anything Shakespeare could dream of writing.

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