Band of Sisters: Film Review

Sympathetic doc could use a clearer focus.

Mary Fishman introduces women who put the Bible's help-the-helpless teachings above all other religious work.

Fortuitously timed to echo hopes that Pope Francis will emphasize the Catholic Church's mission to help the downtrodden over its tendency to protect its own power, Mary Fishman's Band of Sisters looks at how nuns' lives changed in the wake of another major shift in the Church: the mid-'60s reforms of Vatican II. Friendly and informative but less tightly focused than it might have been, Fishman's debut will play well with the community it celebrates but has limited commercial appeal beyond that.

Fishman introduces more than a dozen American nuns, some of whom have done much to change the role women play in the Church: Carol Coston was the first director of NETWORK, which made early headway in bringing nuns' social-justice campaigns to Washington, D.C.; Theresa Kane, in 1979, gave a brave speech in the presence of Pope John Paul II arguing for male-female equality in the eyes of the Church.

Other interviewees do less visible work that still has a tremendous impact on individual lives: One runs a housing project that has built or rehabbed apartments for thousands of homeless or near-homeless residents; two others made so many visits to a facility deporting undocumented immigrants that they were finally allowed inside its walls, ministering to those whose families are being torn apart by xenophobic laws.

Fishman's interviews find common characteristics in most of these women: loyalty, a cheerful willingness to sacrifice personal interests for social ones, tenaciousness in the face of wrongheaded opposition. But while the personalities engage the viewer, the film's story is a diffuse one: Talk of Vatican II's (largely) happy upheaval puts the nuns' street-level activism in context, but narrowing the film's focus to fewer "bands" of sisters might have supplied a dramatic pull mostly lacking here. More discussion of current events also would have helped, offering a valuable and underexposed perspective on priestly sex-abuse scandals and/or the ways Pope Francis could engage this highly motivated wing of the institution he now leads.

Production Company: Band of Sisters Limited
Director-Producer: Mary Fishman
Producer: Mary Fishman

Directors of photography: Ines Sommer, Bill Glader
Music: Miriam Cutler
Editor: Bernadine Colish
No rating, 87 minutes