The path of social and political activism undertaken by many American nuns over the past 50 years is the subject of “Band of Sisters.” Mary Fishman’s admiring docu is more a general survey than a detailed history or portrait of individual personalities and causes, and as a result, it holds interest without achieving any real narrative arc, offering inspirational content in a merely workmanlike package. Still, this underserved subject has an audience, and the pic has successfully played scattered short theatrical dates around the country since its festival debut a year and a half ago. It opens at New York’s Cinema Village on Jan. 17; more theatrical dates, plus educational and broadcast sales, should follow.
The Vatican II meetings between the pope and the world’s bishops in 1962-65 resulted in a sweeping modernization of church policy that had perhaps its most striking, immediate impact on nuns. After centuries in which their role was to be cloistered in full head-to-toe habit, kept pure by complete removal from the world, sisters were encouraged to engage with that world — which they did, and then some.
“Being a Catholic then was very exciting,” one sister recalls now. The turbulent ’60s causes of civil rights marches, Vietnam war protests and women’s liberation did not go unnoticed, with many nuns becoming involved as a natural extension of their commitments toward helping the poor and marginalized. They moved into ghettos to improve housing, education and health care; began lobbying legislators to address systemic injustices; and founded their own industrious organizations like Network (“a national social justice lobby”) and LCWR (Leadership Conference of Women Religious) to advance those and other goals.
Focusing primarily on veteran leaders of that first Vatican II generation, the pic shows them now extending their efforts to environmental protection, prison outreach, protesting the separation of immigrant families via deportation, and arguing with the Church’s remaining limitations on women’s roles (notably exclusion from ordination). The 1980 murder of Catholic sisters in El Salvador awakened a sense of righteous outrage by some at the U.S. government’s involvement in human-rights violations abroad. There’s even discussion here of relaxing the conflict between creationist doctrine and evolutionary science, with one sister stating belief in the latter needn’t violate the essential “sacredness of the natural world.”
Such envelope-pushing stances were sure to invite backlash, and indeed the Vatican eventually ordered some punitive investigations into U.S. nuns’ activities, looking for signs that they had violated their vows. Completed in 2012, with its original footage going back as far as 2008, “Band of Sisters” doesn’t comment on whatever counterbalancing effect the arrival of Pope Francis (in March 2013) and his widely noted liberal views have had.
While the subjects are certainly personable enough, there’s not much insight into how the everyday lives of nuns have changed — beyond, obviously, their current use of greatly modified habits or ordinary street clothes. A limp segment during the closing credits points out the pic’s prior lack of humor by providing a particularly weak stab at some. Assembly is competent if uninspired.