Lucy Ribchester is Sister Damned in Dark Habits

Dark Habits
Dark Habits

Lucy Ribchester was born in Edinburgh and grew up in Fife. After university she worked as an events coordinator for London’s Everyman Cinema, as a concert-hall manager, and most recently as a Cruise Coordinator for the National Trust in Scotland, where she developed a love of the sea and learned how to ceilidh dance. Her debut, The Hourglass Factory (Simon and Schuster, £7.99), is set in 1912 London in the world of suffragettes and circuses. Eithne Farry

It is not often you’ll find me extolling the virtues of entering a nunnery. But then there aren’t many nunneries like the Humiliated Redeemers Community, Pedro Almodóvar’s imagined house of God in his 1983 film Dark Habits. Here the nuns welcome in sinning women as their lifeblood, while themselves transgressing on a mass scale; because without sin there is nothing to save. ‘Very soon,’ says the Mother Superior, ‘this place will be full of murderesses, drug addicts and prostitutes… Praised be God.’

The central story belongs to Yolanda, a singer on the run from the police. But it’s the nuns themselves who are the soul of the film: Sister Sewer Rat, who keeps a secret identity as lurid novelist Concha Torres; Sister Manure, whose acid hallucinations allow her to have visions of Jesus; and my chosen Alter Ego, Sister Damned (played by the magnificent Carmen Maura), a bongo virtuoso who tends to the chickens in the convent garden and keeps an adopted rescue tiger known as The Boy.

It’s not only the fact that Sister Damned owns a pet tiger, nor that her pet tiger is called The Boy, nor that the only place acceptable to own a pet tiger is in an Almodóvar film made in the 1980s, that makes me want to be Sister Damned. She is, of all the characters in the movie, the one most contented with what she has – a woman who has found the secret to happiness with small acts of kindness and a bedroom full of rescued animals.

Like so many of Almodóvar’s films, Dark Habits takes place in a beautiful, brilliant melting pot of feminine camaraderie and wisdom. Here, women find solace in glamour and make life into a joyful spectacle, even in its dreariest moments. And as with his other films, Almodóvar never once judges his characters nor invites us to do so. In one of the most poignant scenes the Mother Superior runs after an arrested prostitute, calling for the police to wait so that she can put on her high heels – a small recognition of feminine dignity.

What happens to the sisters in the end breaks my heart, but the existence of them in the first place is enough to restore your faith in the power of humans to redeem each other.

Lucy Ribchester