The Headless Nun, Directed by Nuno Sá Pessoa
When a thief named Harold robs a gas station in the desert, he does not expect to meet the maker of the universe. The Headless Nun transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary, infusing the banal with the divine. ‘Harold the thief’ and ‘Hilda the nun’ – the latter headless – traverse the open American desert accompanied by a narrative poetry spoken with the unmistakable American accent of none other than Patrick Carlin (the brother of George Carlin, to whom the film is dedicated).
The poetic narration (written by Kris Skovmand) is dark but delightful.
Driving the highway drunken and dumb:
Harold the thief, Hilda the nun.
Around them it seemed the desert was burning.
Rattlesnake puppets were twisting and turning
and doing that horrible dance called: The Death.
A vitreous, breezy music (composed by Miguel Sá Pessoa) fills the dry desert atmosphere. It is eerie and jazzy at once, and its vibrations seem almost to echo the incomprehensible and vast nothingness that surrounds Harold and Hilda. They advance lazily on the highway in a bright red car. Harold smokes a cigarette while Hilda sits motionless in the passenger seat. Neither speaks.
In fact, none of the characters speak – at least not in their own voices. Carlin speaks for them all in the manner of an omniscient narrator, infusing each interaction with a unique literary quality, as if we were watching the unfolding of a narrated short story. This provides also the distinct opportunity for the film’s actors, especially Miguel Sá Pessoa, who plays Harold, to convey the actions of dialogue and the intense emotion of divine inspiration without actually speaking.
The backdrop of the vast American desert along with an unexceptional gas station on the side of the highway paint a particularly nonchalant, ordinary Americana. But within this scene are interspersed images of religiosity: the decapitated Hilda bleeds onto the cross hanging around her neck; the blood drips onto the illustrated pages of an open bible in her lap. Harold’s presence as a wandering thief reinforces the Christian imagery of one who is lost – and subsequently found. The motif of Christian death in the desert contrasts with the mundanity and playfulness of other elements of the film, such as ‘the gas station clerk who was spotty and rose [who] had a pimple that stood from the tip of his nose’. At the same time, the imagery of religious death parallels Harold’s spiritual experience once inside the gas station.
A strange sound interrupts Harold as he steals from the shop. Illuminating his way with a match, he enters the back room, where he is submerged into a vast void of spiritual energy – another dimension where he meets the maker of the universe. The music grows to this moment, when it soars, sublime. The visual effects are marvelous. Director Nuno Sá Pessoa displays the divine in the eyes of a thief: eyes which reflect back the universe itself as worlds revolve within them.
The editing is seamless and artful in its ability to infuse the mundane with sublime meaning. The headless nun defines Harold’s spiritual experience, and Harold’s very existence takes on cosmic importance that is at once singularly significant and also spectacularly ordinary. Once again, the voice of Patrick Carlin speaks what can only be imagined: in the presence of the maker of the universe, Harold the thief becomes ‘like sand in the ocean’.
This is a beautiful film whose poetic writing, polished visual effects, and powerful imagery draw the viewer into a recognisable world where the unremarkable mingles with the divine. ■
Runtime: 7 minutes
Genres: Fantasy, Short
Find out more
More information about The Headless Nun can be found in the Internet Movie Database and Facebook. More information about this film’s director, Nuno Sá Pessoa, can also be found in the Internet Movie Database, as well as his website. Nuno Sá Pessoa is an accomplished Portuguese director, editor, producer, cinematographer, writer, actor, and independent filmmaker. His recent films include Terra 2084 (Earth 2084), A Lagoa (The Pond), and Bílis Negra (Black Bile) – among many others.
This critical review was commissioned and sponsored by the filmmaker.
Featured Image: A scene from ‘The Headless Nun’. The Headless Nun.