Inquiring Nuns

Nearly 50 years ago, Chicago documentary makers Gordon Quinn and Gerald Temaner recruited a couple of Dominican nuns, Sister Marie Arné and Sister Mary Campion, for an experimental film in which they would approach random people on the street, ask them if they were happy, and try to determine why. Inquiring Nuns (1968), one of the earliest releases from the directors’ Kartemquin Films, screens outdoors Tuesday at Millennium Park as part of Kartemquin’s extended golden anniversary, with Quinn taking questions after the movie. The event was arranged months ago, and no one could have known then that it would transpire during a national summer of sorrow, when the question “Are you happy?” might well bring the response “Are you crazy?”

Looking at the movie now, amid a pandemic of gun violence, you realize that the people in the movie, whether or not they were happier, certainly felt safer. They fret about the war in Vietnam and social and racial unrest at home, but in the era of the daily newspaper and the nightly newscast, they live in a bubble, exposed to less chaos than we are today. Many lose themselves in their work (you can tell this was shot in Chicago), viewing happiness not as a life goal but as a feeling that comes and goes as they race through their days. They find happiness in their family’s health, or in their financial security, or in other people, though all those things can be terribly fragile. For some people the question “Are you happy?” is so complex they tie themselves in knots trying to answer it; for others it’s simply irrelevant.

What’s extraordinary about Inquiring Nuns is how variously people on the street pursue fulfillment. One middle-class white woman argues that happiness demands “a constant sense of self-involvement,” whereas a visibly troubled man defines unhappiness as “being alone, feeling that you’re the only person. No one is interested in you except yourself.” An African-American woman coming out of Sunday church says she teaches her three children “to accept life, work hard, expect to get things by working hard, and to discipline themselves and conform to society.” Earlier, a white teen in a rock band praises the controversial new Picasso sculpture in the Loop: “Maybe a lot of people aren’t ready for it, but I think they’d better start getting ready for it, because the world is just changing, and you can’t lag behind.” Quinn and Temaner bookend their interviews with shots of the expressway, a funky organ piece by Philip Glass (his first credited film work) pumping away on the soundtrack. Yet their movie captures as many paths to happiness as there are people, each traveling at his own chosen pace.  v