Producers: Kira Carstensen, Shawnee Isaac-Smith and Judy Korin   Director: Pedro Kos   Screenplay: Erin Barnett, Shawnee Isaac-Smith and Pedro Kos   Distributor: Discovery+ Films

Grade: B

The current dispute in the U.S. Catholic Council of Bishops about a proposed rule that could be used to prohibit pro-choice politicians—particularly President Biden—from receiving communion has revealed the sharp divide between traditionalists and progressives that exists in the church.  That the breach is nothing new is demonstrated by Pedro Kos’s documentary, which reaches back more than half a century to tell the story of a group of nuns who fought an entrenched all-male hierarchy to bring change to the institution they loved, with results that were mixed but remain inspiring.

The Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, a teaching order of Spanish origin, established a daughter-house in California in the early twentieth century and formally separated from the Spanish congregation in the 1920s.  They founded Immaculate Heart College, which developed into a highly regarded liberal arts institution, particularly strong in art and music. 

Over time the thriving community also came to make up much of the teaching staff in the parochial schools of the Los Angeles diocese. By the 1960s, however, it had assumed a strong progressive bent.  Members of the order opted for teaching approaches and modes of artistic expression that were innovative, even somewhat shocking, for the time.  Some also became political activists, participating in civil rights marches and other liberal movements.  They also enthusiastically embraced the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, especially those regarding their mode of attire, and adopted a communal, decidedly democratic, decision-making process.

All of this brought the community into conflict with Cardinal James Francis McIntyre, the prelate of the Los Angeles archdiocese, a formidable administrator of strongly conservative beliefs.  In 1967 he barred them from teaching in Los Angeles Catholic schools after they rejected his demands that they continue wearing their traditional habits and following a regimen of communal prayer and an appeal to the Vatican decided in his favor.  That led most of the community—more than 300 of the 380 nuns—to request dispensation from their vows in 1970.  They formed a lay group, the Immaculate Heart Community, which recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary and continues its progressive work.  By contrast the number of nuns who remained in vows has decreased to a handful; the college closed in 1981.

Kos tells this story of “unruly nuns,” as they were called in the press at the time for resisting the authoritarian rule of their ordinary, in a fairly conventional fashion, with a large collection of archival material supplemented by extensive interview clips shot over the course of decades.  Among the most notable are the observations of Anita M. Caspary, the superior of the community in 1970.   Ample coverage is also devoted to Corita Kent, who joined the order in 1936, studied at Immaculate Heart and UCLA, and became head of the college’s art department, gaining recognition for her own work in the 1960s and 1970s; her renown continues to the present day.  Animation by Una Lorenzen is also employed to smooth the transitions.

(McIntyre, it might be noted, was respected for his financial acumen—he’d had Wall Street experience before entering the priesthood, and is remembered as a prolific builder and fund-raiser.  In this case, however, he allowed his staunch opposition to change to cloud his practical judgment, since the nuns who provided much of the diocesan schools’ teaching staff worked for almost nothing.  Replacing them must have been a costly business.  The cardinal is represented here only through archival material, including excerpts from his letters, so he’s drawn in starkly stern, unyielding terms, seen through an unflattering lens.)

The film is competently made, with good cinematography by Emily Topper and Clay Westervelt and—most important in this sort of project—spry (sometimes excessively so) editing by Erin Barnett, Yaniv Elani, Kos and Ondine Rarey.  The music score by Ariel Marx is a bit intrusive, as are the choices of other music by music supervisor Tracy McKnight.

But while technically adequate, what makes “Rebel Hearts” memorable is the spirit and resilience of this group of Catholic nuns who fought an early battle in the struggle against a patriarchal, conservative system that is far from over.  It’s admittedly a one-sided treatment of a single episode pitting progressive and traditional forces in the church, but it presents its case in a fashion both moving and uplifting.