Case Study 81: Brides of Christ, Episode 1–“Diane”

Original Airdate: September 4th, 1991 on Australian Broadcasting Corporation

You’ll have to forgive me, because going from schlocky family sitcoms to prestige dramas for serious Australian grown-ups induces a certain amount of whiplash. Brides of Christ is a six episode miniseries depicting a convent of Catholic nuns in 1960s Sydney. It’s a historical drama and there’s unlikely to be much chance for sex and violence? We’re in Masterpiece Theatre territory here. It’s probably not as much fun as Call the Midwife but it’s also hard to believe it shares a medium with Family Ties.

Strengths

  • Fresh subject matter. Have there ever been any other shows about nuns? As near as I can tell the closest things are The Flying Nun, which was clearly not intended to be taken seriously, and the aforementioned business about midwives, which has nuns but is primarily about, you know, midwives. Plus, those nuns are Anglican.
  • Insight into Catholicism. So I was raised Roman Catholic but I’ve never been a nun, and I’ve never had much interaction with them outside of pissing them off in Sunday school. A lot of this was new even for me, and this effect was made more pronounced by the temporal remove. Brides chronicles one of the more tumultuous moments in recent Church history, rivalled only by a certain spotlight-worthy story that broke in Boston around the turn of the century. While child molestation was definitely happening in the church in the 1960s, fresh-faced postulant Sister Catherine (Josephine Byrnes, The Matrix Reloaded) is out of the loop. She’s more interested in tensions in the church between conservatives and disciples of the reform-minded Pope John XXIII, or “Johnny X-X-one-one-one,” as Catherine’s goofy friend Sister Paul (Lisa Hensley, Dating the Enemy) calls him. Johnny was famous for Pacem in terris, an encyclical inveighing against nuclear proliferation, and for calling the Second Vatican Council. Vatican II wasn’t finished and implemented until the papacy of Johnny’s successor, but it would bring about major changes in the church. Catherine and I were both raised in the church, but all the church services of her childhood were in Latin. Nowadays the pope is another reformer in the spirit of our Johnny, and activists within the church call (optimistically) for female priests and a wholehearted embrace of gay marriage, both ideas that would cause the stately senior nuns of 1963 Sydney to burst into unholy fire. It can be hard to keep your eye on the future in a religious tradition steeped in ancient ritual—when Catherine and her colleagues are shrouded in black veils and crowns of thorns during their initiation, they look like they have more in common with moondrunk pagans than with respectable Sunday churchgoers. Recent movies like Spotlight, Philomena and Calvary do a good job dragging the Roman Catholic Church to hell and back, and Brides is much more even-handed—Catherine and the other nuns are for the most part sympathetic, though their faith is not always easily comprehensible. That’s not to say that the Church as an institution comes off well, even if no one gets molested. It’s just as infected by sexual repulsion and mindless embrace of authority as always. Catherine is eventually sent off to the provinces to get her away from Paul and their “particular relationship.” She’s also forced to burn her private journals after setting off the Independent Thought Alarm one too many times.
  • Catherine. So why does she put up with this shit? She’s clearly too smart to be mouthing empty catechisms, even if older nuns like Sister Attracta (Melissa Jaffer, Mad Max: Fury Road) offer encouraging, laid-back role model vibes in contrast to Sister Agnes’ (Brenda Fricker, My Left Foot) tight-assed bitter old martinet. Before Sister Catherine was Sister Catherine, she was Diane, a dewy-eyed girl fresh out of a lengthy college career and ready to earn her MRS degree. After her father dies, she undergoes some weird religious epiphany. It’s  worth taking a moment here to praise the director (Ken Cameron, The Umbrella Woman) for conveying something as abstract as a religious epiphany in a legible if abstract and impressionistic manner. He even managed to resist using hokey period special effects! Anyway, it’s compelling to watch Catherine strive to reconcile her liberal upbringing with the decidedly staid and orderly intellectual environment where she finds herself. She may be an inquisitive free-thinker, but she doesn’t have a mean-spirited or sarcastic bone in her body. She earnestly engages a peevish Agnes on the topic of nonsensical medieval thought experiments. She knows Paul isn’t on her intellectual level, but she never lets Paul see this for a moment; we get the sense that Paul would be interested in taking the relationship deeper into the heart of particularity, and it seems Catherine is inclined to discourage this, subtly, gently, so as not to call attention to it or hurt Paul’s feelings. Here is where I wish that we could see an alternate reality where the two young women aren’t separated and this issue eventually comes to a head, but I’m sure Catherine would be a goddamned class act about it. 

Final Episode Judgment: 10/10. Television execs are historically timid about touching on anything having to do with religion or spirituality. It’s a shame, but that scarcity creates openings for fresh stories that offer probing explorations of deep and rich thematic material. This episode is well-acted, well-written and well-shot. Based on the strength of this premiere, Brides would have made an excellent TV series. It could have been the Mad Men of Catholicism. Instead, it was a miniseries before its time plunged into inky black obscurity. It’s moments like this where I feel vindicated by my drive to unearth the pearls and truffles of forgotten TV (along with a lot of stinking refuse.)

NEXT TIME: I review the blissfully Tom-Cruise-free Mission Impossible (1966).

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Case Study 81: Brides of Christ, Episode 1–“Diane”