Movie Review: Sister Act – A Comedy Critiques the Church (Nov 1992)

By Matt Dabbs

Reviewed by Dan Rhodes
November, 1992

7The plot is predictable. The acting is adequate. But into this rather flimsy framework is woven a story of acceptance, change, and growth – a story of a church in transition. From Touchstone Pictures and based on a screenplay by Joseph Howard, Sister Act is a Scott Rudin production created by Walt Disney Pictures and distributed by Buena Vista.

A surprise box office hit, Sister Act (rated PG) remained in the top 10 through the entire summer and by mid-September had grossed in excess of $126 million. Repeat viewers and word of mouth have accelerated the release of this film on video. Available November 13, 1992 from Touchstone Home Video, anticipated volume has promted the direct sell price of $19.95.

For churches in danger of polarization, Sister Act may offer not only comic relief but an enduring story which calls us to critique our purpose, attitudes, and methods.

Sister Act features one major star, Whoopi Goldberg. She portrays a Diana Ross wannabe, Deloris Van Carier, the lead singer for a group performing in a second-rate lounge in Reno. Amidst the background music of shuffling cards, roulette wheels, and slot machines, the Ronelles attempt to preserve the sounds of the ’60s, a la the Supremes.

Having been warned as a child in Catholic school how such a girl might turn out, Deloris fulfills those negative expectations with all the attendant matters of lifestyle. She is involved with the owner of the lounge, Vince La Rocca, portrayed by Harvey Keitel. Vince is a typical mafia-type crime figure. He proclaims his love for Deloris and lavishes her with gifts. She becomes frustrated, however, when after going to confession, Vince decides he will not divorce his wife.

Accidentally witnessing an underling executed at Vince’s order, Deloris flees to the police. With her testimony Vince finally can be put away permanently, if she can be kept alive for two months until the trial. Playing a totally serious character and straight man in this comedy, Bill Nunn as Sergeant Eddie Souther, convinces Deloris to enter the police witness protection program. She must go underground.

The setting now shifts to San Francisco and the least likely place Vince would ever look for Deloris: St. Katherine’s Convent. Historically, convents have been regarded as places of refuge, providing comfort and asylum for people in trouble. These same convents can provide the perfect ambience for a great comic premise. Director Emile Ardolino saw the humor of the situation and more: “A brassy, streetwise, lusty loung singer, in short, the opposite of a nun, is forced to hide in a convent to protect herself from gangsters. The surprise for the characters is that she finds friendship, love, and her own self-worth in a place she least expects it.” According to Ms. Goldberg, that was one reason she was attracted to the project. “The story is about self-discovery, and discovering that when you’re open to receiving help, it comes to you. Deloris thinks her life is all right, until she is forced to spend time learning what right really is.”

St. Katherine’s stands as only a faint flicker of light in a run-down, seedy part of the city. Nuns are cloistered behind graffiti-covered walls while across the street and down the block are countless lives plagued with sickness, sorrow, and sin. Portrayed by veteran Maggie Smith, the imperious Mother Superior administers what Deloris thinks is more of a reformatory than a sanctuary. By her own admission a “relic,” the Reverend Mother has retreated from time, representing a form of religion that is strict and narrow, traditional and dead.

The convent is attached to a cathedral which is quite large and quite empty of worshippers. The services are predictable and boring and at least would be conducive for sleepign except for the choir which sings too loud, off key and with little regard for tempo. However, it is thorugh the choir and its transformation that the message of the movie is conveyed.

A reluctant and unwilling candidate, Deloris tries to take her place with the nuns. She is now Sister Mary Clarence, purportedly transferred from a more progressive convent. Not finding her ministry in any other capacity, she is forced to join the choir and subsequently becomes the director. Throughout her stay in the convent and especially in her work with the choir, Deloris/Mary Clarence interacts primarily with a troika of women, bringing a definite ensemble feeling to the story. However, the characters of Sister Mary Robert (Wendy Makkena), Sister Mary Patrick (Kathy Najimny), and Sister Mary Lazarus (Mary Wickes) stand alone as strongly-defined individuals.

Mary Clarence correctly assesses that the nuns’ tasks are predominantly self-serving busy work. Mary Robert so desperately wants to reach out in a ministry that is her very own. She represents a theme underlying the convent’s awakening: ministry should be enjoyable and based on one’s gifts. The choir members are reminded to rejoice since they are singing to the Lord!

With some remedial musical instruction, more adept leadership, increased practice time and expansion of the repertoire to include more modern songs, Mary Clarence transforms the choir into a class act. Whoopi Goldberg and the supporting cast of choir nuns perform original interpretations of several Motown classics. These songs of the ’60s are given new words and sung with feeling, meaning, and reverence. “My Guy” becomes “My God” – “nothing you could say could tear me away from My God. Nothing you could do could make me be untrue to my God.” “I will follow him” is directed to Jesus.

Hymns are sung well both traditionally and with an upbeat flair. The peak of impact occurs when the traditional version is followed by a rhythm and blues rendition of the clasic Catholic hymn, “Hail Holy Queen.” The choir’s new music and the new style of performance generates vibrancy and leads to other positive changes. Everyone is impressed and supportive. Almost.

The Mother Superior is aghast at such “secular” display. But the music heard outside creates interest and attracts the youth back to church. Even older people who had been turned off to church return as willing worshippers, praising God. The ministry goes outside the church, not only singing on the streets, but serving the community.

The church discovers that the way to inward renewal is through outward service. The nuns set out to renew the neighborhood. Part of the convent fence is removed to make way for a playground. A day-care center and a food kitchen for the homeless are opened. The nuns take a stand against pornography. Most significantly, however, they meet people and interact with them. Relationships are developed, especially with teens.

The storyline reaches its climax and resolution back in Reno, as Vince learns thorugh a police department leak where Deloris is hiding. In the meantime the Mother Suprior, unable to thwart progress but unwilling to change, decides to resign, saying she is “obsolete.” Through a ploy where she is credited with the recent success of the convent, she stays. The crucial point, a line delivered by Sister Mary Clarence, leads to her growth and acceptance: “People don’t have to stay obsolete.”

Fear and ignorance lead to protectionism, and protectionism thwarts growth. What happened to the Mother Suprior in Sister Act happens to individuals, churches, and religious movements. The film exposes the myths of “disagreement implies dislike” and “differences indicate someone should leave.” For a heritage which stresses autonomy, with the leadership of progressive persons, individual congregations can reverse trends, becoming more able communicators of the grace of God.

Among a plethora of Hollywood productions that you would take neither your kids nor your parents to see, it is refreshing to find a film receiving such accolades as “good clean fun for the whole family” (The Home Show).

Beyond the entertainment and suitability factors, it is amazing that through this medium more Christians will be challenged to examine their own idiosyncratic practices than through numerous sermons, seminars, and journal articles. Albeit, the value of Sister Act is multiplied as it preciptates discussions of church policies, biblical interpretation, and honest exchange of feelings. An able facilitator with an appropriate discussion guide could utilize Sister Act as a focal point in an intergenerational sharing experience, bridging gaps, decreasing fear, and promoting understanding and trust.

For churches in transition, discerning what to hold on to and what to let go of, wanting the church of Jesus Christ to be a vital reality in the 21st century, Sister Act will offer humorous and meaningful support. For those who are fearful and retreating, who for their own comfort level insist that the church, and especially its outward forms, be locked into a particular time period (circa 1950), the movie may be seen as irreverent and frivolous, or as “their” situation. Hopefully, for all, Sister Act will prove challenging, promote thinking, engender renewed Bible study, and encourage dialogue.Wineskins Magazine

Dan Rhodes

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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