When I was three years old, I was obsessed with a record by a Belgian nun, which had yielded a surprise hit single called “Dominique.” The story of the pure, simple faith of a young girl, spending her life in a convent and making beautiful music with a guitar, had been turned into a stupidly saccharine movie with Debbie Reynolds. It never occurred to me to wonder what happened to this nun after her hit record came out. Here, at last, is the movie which tells her lurid and amazing story.
Writer and director Roger Deutsch has taken considerable artistic liberties in the telling of her story in this Italian language film, but most of the outrageous details of the story are taken from the real life of Sister Smile, the Singing Nun, including her departure from the convent, her lesbian relationship, her problems with drugs and money, and the tragic deaths of her and her lover.
At the start of “Sister Smile,” Deutsch refers both to the Debbie Reynolds movie and to the jacket copy of Sister Smile’s album, with ironic intent and effect. His extremely creative screenplay combines narrative, satire, animation, allegory, religious parable, and dream imagery, to portray Sister Smile as a psychopathic and destructive woman, hellbent on destroying both herself and those she loves. In the film’s portrayal of her relationship to her manipulative father, both overly close and overly distant, there are hints of the reasons she is such a mess, but the film doesn’t spell everything out for the viewer or tie up the strands of the story in an overly neat package: there is ample room to think about the story and puzzle over it in a number of different ways. The extremely powerful repeated nightmare scenes, in particular, emphasize the pain in the ex-nun’s inner life.
Ginevra Colonna gives a stunning, star turn performance as Sister Smile. She is passionate, precise, and fearless in her creation and nuanced portrayal of a character who is completely crazy yet still understandable. She makes the more poetic, philosophical, and dreamlike parts of the script seem every bit as natural and believable as the everyday scenes and the melodrama. She is the focus of virtually every scene in the film, and she constantly reveals new, fascinating elements of her character.
As the lover, Simona Caparrini also gives a powerful performance. The incidental music by Andreas Salvatori creates a strong mood of unfulfilled longing at key moments throughout the film.
In the end, this is a film about a frustrated artist, whose artistic voice deserts her when she has an enormous hit record and can no longer find the innocent inner connection which opened the door to her music in the first place. Sister Smile continues her life, trying without success to find a way to give a voice to her creative needs, or else to drown out the pain through self-destructive behaviors.
Deutsch’s film portrait of a woman’s journey into hell, and her tragic death, is harrowing, fascinating, and illuminating. The film has a lot to say about the overpowering need that some people have to express themselves creatively, and the extreme difficulties this need creates in their lives, which can have deadly consequences. The film also speaks eloquently of desire, manipulation, destructiveness, and the odd relationship between a singer, her audience, and the media. This riveting film, which made the festival rounds when it was first released, deserves wider distribution and a chance to be seen by a broader audience.