The Very Private Work Of Sister K

US (2016) Dir. Johan Liedgren

If you were going to have a discussion on sex vs. sexual pleasure surely, the last people you would involve in the discussion would be a panel of men of ecclesiastical leanings who have taken a vow of celibacy? Unfortunately, because a nun is at the centre of this hearing, external influence wouldn’t suffice.

This is essentially what Sister K (Liza Curtiss) has to face alone, despite repeatedly being told she isn’t on trial, by an all male panel representing the clergy (Ed Stone, Bradley Goodwill and Kurt Lanz) and a visitor (Bruce Jennings), to act as a contrarian on Sister K’s behalf. Along the head nun (Marty Mukhalian) and a doctor (Jaryl Draper), neither of whom offer any real support Sister K might as well be on trial.

What should be an open and shut case turns into an incendiary discussion on the evils of sex following the death of a mentally backwards young man in the care of the church, whom Sister K is accused of raping over a two year period. Instead, Sister K insists their affair was mutually voluntary and totally pure, and she was only doing God’s will in giving the lad pleasure through her own.

Sexually active nuns almost seems like the premise for either a bawdy Carry On comedy or a porn film, but for writer-director Johan Liedgren it offers him the chance to put the church’s attitudes towards sex under the microscope. Though allegedly not on trial, The Very Private Work Of Sister K plays out as a tense courtroom drama, though arguably less 12 Angry Men more four celibate men unable to construct a watertight case against a supposed deviant nun.

Liedgren skilfully dissects the archaic and dogmatic mindset and uneducated definition of sex by the church through this 87-minute exchanging of philosophies between a group of people purportedly all working for the same cause, yet unable to agree on anything. The visitor at first is keen to assure Sister K that she won’t receive any unjust treatment or accusations via questioning, but by the end is the most vociferous against her.

Belief is a component of the script but not exclusively in terms of faith, though that is part of Sister K’s defence – the film opens with one of the judges recalling a story Sister K had shared with him, about a rabbit that gave up being a vegetarian and became a ravenous meat eater instead. Teetering on being a McGuffin, this story is more than just a metaphoric parable, it sets the scene about the general theme of tasking what you will from what you are told.

“It was just sex!” the visitor repeatedly asserts but Sister K insists is was pure, beautiful, and heavenly and where she and the deceased were able to truly find God. Now, the Bible says God is everywhere so the judges should accept Sister K’s epiphany as a celebration of enlightenment; instead they deem this blasphemous, and so the argument goes round in circles as to whether sex can be pure or just evil.

A distinct whiff of sexism comes in the form of no female objectivity to support Sister K which even the Head Nun can’t offer, very much on the side of her male colleagues, but with an intriguing knowledge of condoms. As celibate men they have decided women are either chastened as the nun’s are supposed to be, or vile temptresses like Eve, whom Sister K is compared to frequently during the discussion.

Yet, having to fight alone, Sister K is more than equipped to hold her own and every retort or answer given throws the puerile assertions of the panel back in their faces to which they have no response other than to get angry and hurl further insults at her. If seeing a group of grown men trying daintily to tip toe around the subject of sex without mentioning it comically louche, watching them trying to espouse wisdom about it with zero knowledge or experience is even funnier.

Despite played seriously at all times, traces of black humour creep into the script, from the aforementioned declaration about ribbed condoms to one of the more ardent judges finding himself about to burst when Sister K stands very close to him. They might be men of the cloth but they have urges too, as much as they try to deny themselves, the issue is that women shouldn’t have them either, so their case hinges on Sister K being corrupted by evil into becoming so wantonly promiscuous.

Made on a small budget with a tiny cast set in the one room, the power of the film is in the writing, a taut, verbose yet intelligent deconstruction of a belief system of outdated rules unable to coexist within the modern world. It is an angry film but not overtly so, at least on Sister K’s part – she remains phlegmatic, thoughtful, well prepared and fearless, whilst the judges froth at the mouth at every cogent and reasoned argument she puts to them.

The cinematography by Zia Mohajerjasbi elevates the film beyond its indie status, sober, and full of gravitas it captures every moment dispassionately yet brings out the truth in every character, complimenting Liedgren’s precise direction. For the majority of the cast this their first time in a lead role, and it sometimes shows but generally they all rise to the occasion in deliver compelling portraits of their assigned roles.

What we take away from The Very Private Work Of Sister K is not so much that nuns get horny too but how sex is viewed as sinful by those who do not know whereof they speak. Sister K is being judged not for her libidinous acts but for her lack of remorse which reduces this whole episode down to one simple fact – she is one woman the men can’t keep in check with their hidebound tenets, and that frightens them. You go, Sister!