Happiness is an Inquiring Nun

Newly-restored, the meditative and criminally under-seen 'Inquiring Nuns' faces down the meaning of happiness not with a bang but with a wimple.


In the Summer of 1967, a pair of nuns traversed Chicago armed with a microphone and a devilishly simple question: “Are you happy?” Part cultural artifact, part sociological experiment, part American response to cinéma verité, Inquiring Nuns regularly overpowers its own gag to turn in something more complex. At its core, the film acts as a strikingly honest meditation on the complexities of well-being and the importance of connecting with other people. And for a documentary that’s more than it seems, what better shepherds than two mild-mannered nuns?

Sister Marie Arné and Sister Mary Campion are persistent, beaming, and attentive. They drift like microphone-wielding specters through grocery store parking lots, the rooms of art galleries, and the lobbies of churches. In the early moments of the film, they ask directors Gordon Quinn and Jerry Temaner how to approach people and how to explain the presence of the camera. The sisters aren’t nervous, but they have logistical questions and are determined to figure out this interviewing business. At one point, a sister furrows her brow and asks, “Really, what do we want from the people?” “I don’t think we know…,” an off-screen director replies.

Interjected with the quizzical drones of Philip Glass’ first credited film score, each interview sees the sisters’ simple question rippling out into nuanced inquiries about the nature of contentment, dissatisfaction, and everything in between. Some subjects are happy to wax semantics, or even question whether anything resembling perfect happiness can even be achieved. For others, there’s joy enough in communion, baseball games, and fresh raspberries. In showing your favorite paintings to someone you love or learning something new at a science center with friends.

No two respondents are the same, but there are curious refrains. Vietnam weighs heavily. Financial inequity, too. But the most noticeable through-line is a concern with missed connections: with the feeling that people aren’t hearing and understanding one another. At the end of the film, driving away in the dusk, the nuns remark that if you take the time to show others that you are really, honestly listening, “they will say something that is of value to them.” And maybe, then, having listened so attentively, it will be of some value to you, too. 

Inquiring Nuns originally premiered at the 1968 Chicago International Film Festival and was never meant for a commercial market. The doc (the second film by Katemquin Films, the Chicago production collective behind over 65 documentaries now, including Hoop Dreams and this year’s Minding the Gap) was meant to be viewed and discussed in church basements in two bite-sized half-hour chunks. At 66 minutes, the newly restored 16mm print and 2K DCP (made possible with a grant from the National Film Preservation Fund) unite the two halves into something more closely resembling the original festival screening.

If you live in or near New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago, you can catch the 50th Anniversary theatrical release of Inquiring Nuns on the following dates. Co-Director Gordon Quinn will be attending the opening weekend screenings in each city:

New York, November 23rd – December 2nd at the Museum of the Moving Image

Chicago, November 30th – December 6th at the Gene Siskel Film Center

Los Angeles, December 7th at the Billy Wilder Theatre