Wednesday, November 28, 2018

‘Inquiring Nuns’ holds a mirror to 1967 Chicago, and to ourselves today

Sister Marie Arné, left, and Sister Mary Campion

     Are you happy?
     This simple question underlies "Inquiring Nuns," a charming time capsule returning to the public eye this week, a 66-minute black-and-white documentary of two young nuns going around Chicago in 1967, asking about happiness.
     The film is from Kartemquin Films, a "collaborative community" that has produced 65 movies since it began in 1966, including 1994 "Hoop Dreams."
     The film stars are a pair of Adrian Dominican nuns, Sister Mary Campion and Sister Marie Arné, who are given a microphone and thrown into filmmaking.
     "I'm not exactly sure what we're going to do today," 
Arné says, in the opening scene. "What do you think works best?"
     For me, the film works on three levels. There is the universal question and its variants: What makes you happy? What makes you unhappy?
     There are the unnamed Chicagoans of half a century ago: how they dress, how they speak ("You mean Fadder Buckley?" asks a man from Berwyn). The streets behind them. The Art Institute, a supermarket, the crowd letting out after church at St. Columbanus Church on East 71st Street.
     And third, the movie's stars, the nuns.
     Our cliched notions of the '60s are almost entirely absent: hair is merely longish, no beads or hippie garb. Though the first person approached, a round young woman greets the question with, "Groovy. Yeah, I'm happy. I really am." Most of the men wear coats, ties and fedoras, while many of the women view happiness through a very conventional lens.
     "My husband and his success..." replies one. "That's what makes me happy."


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