Yolanda (Cristina Sánchez Pascual) is a singer in a down at heel nightclub; it's not exactly near the top rungs of the showbiz ladder, but it's a job. Her boyfriend is not much help at home, however, being more interested in getting high on heroin, so when she brings some back for him she is not really expecting much thanks, and only secures it because she loves him, however misguided that may be. When he promptly keels over after injecting and dies thanks to the dose being contaminated, she panics, and goes to work as if nothing had happened: but something has, and the cops are on her trail. What to do? How about heading for the nearest convent and asking for sanctuary?
If this is sounding a little like the beginning of Sister Act, well, there's no proof that popular musical comedy was inspired by this lesser entry in the oeuvre of cult director Pedro Almodóvar, but it does look suspiciously similar. Whether that blockbuster could have been improved by Dame Maggie Smith shooting heroin and falling in love with Whoopi Goldberg is a moot point, but that's what happened here as Yolanda and the Mother Superior (Julieta Serrano) come to an arrangement where the fugitive can stay for as long as she feels she is able, or at least until the heat dies down, but things get complicated very quickly. It's not only those two who find this, as the other nuns each have their own quirks too.
For a long time Dark Habits, or Entre tinieblas as it was titled originally, was one of the most difficult of Almodóvar's films to see which was odd in itself since it was the director’s first aim for the mainstream after his punkier shorts and features before it. Yet there were rumours he was unhappy with how the work turned out, and did his best to move on from it - it's difficult not to note that star Pascual not only never worked for him again, but pretty much never worked for anyone else again either. Some claim her performance is the weak link here, as if she didn't quite grasp what was required of her, but she had been in previous of his efforts, and in truth she wasn't so bad, just not up to the task of bringing out the emotions that would appear to be the goal.
While there were funny bits and pieces here, it was not easily pigeonholed as one of the director's comedies, so no matter how outrageous the circumstances or events, the mournful tone tended to go against the humour: you don't laugh in church, do you? Not that these sisters were conventional in many ways, sure they were religious, but their self-flagellating viewpoint left them with those dark habits of the English-language title, such as their drugs problems, one nun (Chus Lampreave) channelling the sob stories of those they were meant to assist into bestselling, trashy, bonkbusting novels, and another (Carmen Maura) obsessed with her pet tiger to the exclusion of all else (incidentally, it's rather alarming to see this beast pawing at the actress for more meat treats as she continues to act through their scenes like the trouper she was).
The heart of this should have been the troubled love story between Yolanda and the Mother Superior, but the plot insisted on getting distracted by other matters, with the result this was a curious mix of the grimly whimsical and the melodramatic. Almodóvar became adept at that form of storytelling, so you could regard this as his baby steps towards his more accomplished achievements just around the corner, yet there was a strangely static nature to Dark Habits that saw its contentious subjects simply sit there without much confrontation, odd when this was a work that emerged from a strongly Catholic society so you may well have expected him to take such business by the scruff of the neck rather than mutedly toy with it. What was good to witness was his assembling of his regular players to whom he stayed loyal down the rest of his career, and there were occasional moments of inspiration, yet an uncertainty showed through too often for it to be anything but one for his dedicated fans who had to see everything he had conjured up.