SUNDANCE REVIEW: ‘Rebel Hearts’ (2021) Nuns Like You’ve Never Seen Them Before

Rating: 5 out of 5.

“This story of trailblazing nuns is presented with bold colour and poignant reflection.”

The image of nuns marching in protest is one of subversive expectation. Pedro Kos’ film is a historical excavation of the nuns who made headlines for their modernisation of the Church and adapting to be relevant to the movement of social change. The brilliant documentary is a colourful, contemplative and informative presentation of women whose dedicated faith led them to activism. 

Rebel Hearts looks back to the early 21st century to contextualise the social standing of religious orders. Women, in an escape of settling as a housewife, committed to religious orders for education and to find like-minded others. Then, a small collection of women broke away from the oppressive and patriarchal conformity, which didn’t allow them personal possessions or money, and formed The Sisters of the Immaculate Hearts Of Mary. The group worked to modernise the landscape of religious teachings for timely resonance.

Using a blend of archival footage and animated articulations of remembered details, Pedro Kos’ documentary shines a light on these ‘modern nuns’ who redefined what it is to be religiously dedicated. Rebel Hearts is an impressive documentation of the women whose deep beliefs of compassion led them to extensive activism for their community and beyond. 

A still from the film Rebel Hearts. there is a bright orange background and a parade of nuns dressed in their long black uniform circling into the distance. it almost looks like a black hole pulling the nuns in.
Animated Nuns. Image Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.

It is impossible not to draw comparisons between the Sister’s work of the sixties and the continued efforts of today. Rebel Hearts historical efforts portray the endeavour of such outspoken activism. The Sister’s vitality was a juxtaposition to obedience. They deliver messages that are brazen and they are valiant in their conviction: criticising the Vietnam War, marching with Martin Luther King, and striking for women’s agency. In order to express this criticism, Rebel Hearts smartly pulls focus on one particular. Sister Corita Kent takes the spotlight, a woman whose socio-political infused artwork made heads turn. She dealt with religious and biblical subjects in an utterly original way; with bright colours and abstract, unconventional designs. However, as expected when a woman ventures outside the norm, the Cardinal saw Corita’s work as disturbing and scandalous to the point that she was forbidden to represent the Holy family ever again.

The intensely detailed documentary contextualises each chapter of this narrative of modernisation, presenting two decades worth of talking heads to illustrate the profound but under-appreciated work of the Sisters. With the titular song First Aid Kit’s ‘Rebel Heart’, a perfect choice to score the nun’s tireless work, Kos’ hands his documentary over to the women to tell their own stories. Making Rebel Hearts a focused historicization and powerful documentary.

Telling the story of trailblazing nuns with vivid colour and poignant reflection, Sister Corita reminds us: “changing is what keeps one growing.” Brilliantly put together with a well executed framing of relevance, Rebel Hearts captures women who chose to follow their hearts in a manner that only helps to emphasise their commitment that has spanned a lifetime.

Dir: Pedro Kos

Prod: Kira Carstensen, Shawnee Isaac-Smith, Judy Korin

Header Image: Immaculate Heart College Mary’s Day celebration, 1964. Image courtesy of the Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles.