Le Pupille is an oddity on Disney+, a foreign short seemingly destined to get lost in the streamer’s holiday and franchise bric-a-brac. Review spoiler alert: Don’t let it happen, because it’s a delight. Alfonso Cuaron is a credited producer on the Italian film, written and directed by Alice Rohrwacher, about orphans and nuns who quietly battle for sovereignty over a Christmas cake. And yes, it’s as fun as it sounds.
LAUGH PUPILLE: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The main thing: There is always a treat in the group. Serafina (Melissa Falasconi) made the bed as expected and all the other orphan girls did not. Does she suck at the nuns or is she just doing what she thinks is right? Not sure. Her sweet, cherubic mug is a mystery for the ages. Not that the superior mother here, Sister Fioralba (Alba Rohrwacher, the director’s sibling) cares, or is nice to her, or is nice to anyone, really. Everything about her is Mr. This and Mr. That and she rules the boarding school with a strict speak-softly-and-wave-the-iron-fist-at-Jesus philosophy.
It is Christmas Eve, and the day is spent preparing for the big midnight Christmas. The girls get dressed and stand stiffly as Fioralba makes them listen to the war news on the radio. Hard times: men die in battle and food and supplies and hope are scarce. Sister Stricthabit leaves the room for a moment, and little Serafina goes near the radio and accidentally tunes in a happy song with a sticky lyric that reads: “Kiss, kiss me on my little mouth.” I know – geez. The girls sing and dance and get crushed and have soap thrown over their tongues for trouble. And to think, even soap is in short supply these days, and this Is how it is used? Even Serafina, who didn’t even sing or dance, tastes like foam, because the song has wormed its way into her brain, and according to the damn head nun, that means she’s “evil”.
That night the birth is in full swing. The girls hold stiff angel wings and wrinkled faces in harnesses that make them appear to be floating above the ground. A woman in fur and pearls makes a request for prayer, but unlike the others, she does not have a loved one at war, but a malevolent husband. She gives them a cake that she says is made of 70 eggs. Seventy eggs? IN this economy? But there it is, and to waste it would be a big, fat sin. I won’t reveal what happens to the cake, but I wondered if it was better to see the orphan girls eat it and enjoy the rare indulgence, or to see them smash it in their superior’s face.
What movies will it remind you of?: Benedetta! But with more actual cake.
Performance worth watching: If Falasconi were any more disarming, she would be an international truce.
Memorable Dialogue: Late at night. Everyone is sleeping. Except Serafina. Earworms are acting up again. She leans close to a friend:
Serafina: Do you hear something in my head?
Sex and skin: No.
Our assessment: Lovely. Fantastic fantastic great. Le Pupille is a mischievous little thing with a cleverly realized setting and visual aesthetic. Shot on warm and grainy 16mm film, it looks suitably authentic – and so do the emotions and laughs you’ll experience. Rohrwacher masterfully directs his young cast, capturing their innocent wildness and very subtly underlining their fleeting moments of joy with the sadness of their situation: It’s Christmas. They have no families to go home to. And they’re stuck with a nun who turns a simple cookie offering into a damn lesson in selflessness and piety. Not a moment’s rest with this woman, not even at Christmas.
I’m not going to say that the film is an indictment of religious superstition. Well, maybe off extreme religious superstition, because what’s the point of telling a pint-sized little girl she’s “evil” when she’s just doing her best? Hasn’t she suffered enough? Brewing in the subtext is slightly provocative musings about conformity, morality and purity. A little joy goes a long way, and Le Pupille is blown away by it.
Our appeal: STREAM IT. Among the handful of new Christmas movies I’ve seen this year, Le Pupille is by far the best of them.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more about his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.