Would-be Italian M*A*S*H knock-off, with nuns and commies. Sony's Choice Collection vault of hard-to-find cult and library titles has released White Sister (a.k.a.: Bianco, rosso e... and The Sin), the 1972 Italian/French/Spanish co-production, released here by Columbia in 1973, starring Sophia Loren, Adriano Celentano, Fernando Rey, Juan Luis Galiardo, Giuseppe Maffioli, and Tina Aumont. An uneasy, confusing mixture of drama, comedy, religion, and politics, White Sister is always watchable when the irresistible Sophia and the engaging Celentano are on screen, but in the end, it's a fairly obvious effort. No extras for this nice-looking transfer.
Sister Germana (Sophia Loren) has returned to Italy. Raised in Libya, the gorgeous Germana fell in love with an oil worker, only to see him burn to death in a rig explosion, a horrific event that caused her to don the nun's habit. Replacing the head sister who suffered a nervous breakdown, Sister Germana arrives at the Piazza Hospital and finds utter chaos: walls are dirty, linen needs cleaning, there's a mummy museum in one of the wards, and a certain malingerer, Annibale Pezzi (Adriano Celentano), seems to be running the whole show. Having injured his leg over two years ago, Communist Annibale now lives at the hospital, cheering up the patients, assisting in the operating rooms (even though he has no formal medical training), and nailing the attractive nurses. Sister Germana, overwhelmed with her duties, wants him gone, although Dr. Jefe (Fernando Rey) gently argues against it, saying Annibale is protected by the Party. Eventually, Germana and Annibale form a strange relationship which tests Annibale's cynicism for the world...and Germana's vows of celibacy.
Scripted by pros Ruggero Maccari (The Easy Life), Jaja Fiastri, and Tonino Guerra (where do you start: L'avventura, The Red Desert, Blow-Up, the superlative A Quiet Place in the Country, Zabriskie Point, Amacord, Fred and Ginger), and directed and co-written by Alberto Lattuada (Mafioso, La steppa, Fraulein Doktor), White Sister has the feeling of either too many cooks in the kitchen, or too severe a post edit, creating a strangely distant, choppy narrative that's all over the place in terms of tone―and not in a good way. Right from the start, the storyline is unnecessarily muddled, with Germana's exit from Libya completely unexplained (a new government is kicking her out? Escorting her out? What happened to her family home? Or her loving father she keeps remembering?), particularly when seen in connection with the death of her lover (that catalyst for donning the habit is at least clear enough). Was any of that filmed, and then cut out? Tough to say, particularly when you're not sure if other versions―international, perhaps, or one dubbed for English markets―exist.
That feeling of haphazard construction mars the rest of the movie, as well, regardless of whether the cause is lazy scripting or a hacking edit. The movie's central hook obviously is the standard "conflicted-nun-as-love-object" canard, made all too familiar by a host of previous cinematic outings (Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison and The Nun's Story just off the top of my head), and drawn into as stark as relief as possible here with the casting of pasta fazool stunner Loren (those shots of Loren pre-habit and hosed-down, no less, are ridiculously hot). So there's never any doubt―or frankly, tension―where White Sister is going to go in terms of story. It pretty much boils down to "will she or won't she?" with some tragicomedy business and politics-vs.-religion bantering to pad out the rest. Once Loren arrives at the hospital, White Sister seems to be aping Altman's M*A*S*H, with alternating laughs and tears orchestrated by Celentano as a Commie horndog Hawkeye, his "Swamp" decorated with a Che Guevara poster and girlie mags, while he grabs nurses' breasts, cracks up the dying patients, and gives square Henry Blake Loren saintly fits by breaking all her rules. Goofy jokes like a close-up of a mummy's penis (again...can someone explain why there's a mummy museum in the hospital?) are interspersed with surprisingly tender scenes like Celentano comforting an old man while he dies. None of this is explained, of course; head doctor Rey's character is barely around, and when he's asked by Loren why Celentano is allowed to do what he does, Rey merely shrugs and offers a vague Party-affiliation excuse for an answer. When the hospital staff strikes, and the army comes in to help Loren, director Lattuada goes into full Altman mode, with fast cross-cutting between funny/sad set-ups, complete with a soldier cracking wise on the switchboard (when the moviemakers want to give White Sister a wise Italian "such is life" world-weariness, they literally have an old patient keep inserting, "Life goes on," after a particularly outrageous moment).
Had White Sister stayed in that vein, it certainly would have been derivative, but at least its aims would have been somewhat consistent. Instead, just when we think we're settling down to a dramedy, the movie gets political and romantic...and just as obvious and clichéd as during its humorous section. Loren chides Celentano's childish admiration for Communism and his fear of facing the outside world, and Celentano baits Loren about God and her deliriously insane body. Their mutual political/religious/ethical conflicts are as predictable and unoriginal as their dialogue here, while the screenwriters and Lattuada's symbolism are often painfully obvious. When Celentano finally "gets religion"―I couldn't resist that―about Communism, and puts his life on the line to shut down a major thoroughfare as a protest, the seemingly normal, working stiff capitalists who complain about the delay and subsequently run him over are in fact bank robbers with stolen cash―a laughable symbolic metaphor that's right out of Freshman Screenwriting for Commies 101. The moviemakers can't seem to summon up much conviction, let alone passion, for either Loren's or Celentano's spiritual/political plights, creating a weird, passive tone to White Sister that negates any possible (and distressingly slight) message Lattuada and the screenwriters were going for here. So then all we're left with in White Sister are the performances, which are just fine (Loren and Celentano have a nice, low-wattage friction together). However, cast amongst a shifting, unfocused narrative that can't find a consistent voice to save its life, their competent turns ultimately show up White Sister for what it is: a fatally compromised, not too terribly original, mishM*A*S*H.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.