Thursday, July 14, 2016

Craig A. Monson's "Habitual Offenders"

Craig A. Monson is Paul Tietjens Professor Emeritus of Music at Washington University in St. Louis. His recent books include Nuns Behaving Badly: Tales of Music, Magic, Art, and Arson in the Convents of Italy (2010), Divas in the Convent: Nuns, Music, and Defiance in Seventeenth-Century Italy (2012), and the co-edited essay collection, Music in Print and Beyond: Hildegard von Bingen to The Beatles (2013).

Here Monson dreamcasts an adaptation of his latest book, Habitual Offenders: A True Tale of Nuns, Prostitutes, and Murderers in Seventeenth-Century Italy:
Several friends have remarked Habitual Offenders might work better as a TV series than as a movie, given its episodicity, shifts of time and place, secondary characters that appear, loom large for a while, then disappear. One screenwriting challenge (or creative opportunity) involves the book’s “leading ladies,” who have fled the convent before page 1 and turn up dead around page 85; they are much spoken of but barely speak (at least in the book). It really seems more like a “guy movie,” but one more about acting than action. Given the financial challenges of “costume dramas,” at least in this one the women’s outfits would come relatively cheap: nuns, housemaids, nothing fancier than a medium-grade courtesan. Dressing the men might be costlier: lots of lace, both in and out of church.

A significant angle in terms of casting: in their time, the leading ladies were perceived as “old dearies”: both are a decade older than their respective alleged seducers. Several of the spectacularly misbehaving males are around the age of today’s college pranksters. In the book’s two “love scenes” (overheard through a locked door), the man is 31 and the woman, 40.

Sister Laura Vittoria: an ex-prostitute turned nun and still a head-turner at age 30—5'10", with flagrantly red hair (hence her trade name “La Rossa”), lovely white complexion, beautiful hands, lively personality, vivid imagination, but with a long scar running down her left cheek (a work related injury). In love with Donato Guarnieri. Susan Sarandon—yes, I know I’m thinking White Palace, and I know that was 1990 and that Sarandon is now nearing 70, but nevertheless… . Or perhaps Allison Janney or Jessica Chastain?

Sister Silveria Catterina: "cute," with a great personality—40, barely 5' tall, "round like a plum," chestnut hair, a full set of beautifully white teeth, and a smile that drew men to the convent parlor even in her middle age. Apparently ambivalent about her lover, Carlo Possenti. Sally Fields—yes, I know, I can do the math: she, too, is nearing 70, but that smile… Or how about Patricia Arquette, who could convey the important impression of vulnerability?

Carlo Possenti: 31-yr-old priest and poet, the son of a tailor, who longs to be a gentleman; witty, outwardly confident, brave, but prone to violence—he threatens to shoot Sister Silveria Catterina through the convent grate. He dies under torture, without revealing anything. Joaquin Phoenix tops my list. Or Tyler Hoechlin? Kit Harrington?

Donato Guarnieri: a callow mercenary soldier and another head turner—about 20, 6' tall, slender, blond, with crazy blue eyes, boyish enough to catch the eye of an aristocratic sergeant major as well as Sister Laura Vittoria; not the brightest bulb in the chandelier. Survives torture and must eventually be released, “the last man standing.” Douglas Booth—no, I’m not thinking Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but he has the look. Or Matt Barr? Perhaps Armie Hammer?

Giovanni Braccesi: about 30, a brainy, calculating, ambitious “virtuoso of taste” and right-hand man to Cardinal Antonio Barberini; something of an invalid, a bit priggish. Framed by Pope Innocent X, he consistently outwits the prosecutor. Benedict Cumberbatch would be great. Or Adrien Brody?

Giandomenico Rossi: 49, the determined, audacious papal prosecutor,"both notorious and cruel" (think Baron Scarpia from Tosca); follows orders, will stop at nothing. Mark Rylance’s Cromwellian manner could be perfect.

There’s also a rich assortment of ancillary characters: nuns, maidservants, prostitutes, military men, cardinals, popes, who count as much more than walk-ons. A couple possibilities:

Pope Innocent X: F. Murray Abraham—perfect. (I even see a resemblance.)

The strong-minded, plucky Prioress, Lucina Conti: Tessa Peake Jones (from Grantchester); I also thought of Pam Ferris (from Call the Midwife, where her character seems perhaps too "low brow" for a prioress—even one who in this case is an ex-hooker).

Alternatively, a friend suggested now that Mad Men has finished, why not make up the cast from that series—Jon Hamm (Possenti), Vincent Kartheiser (Braccesi), John Slattery (Rossi), Christina Hendricks (La Rossa), Elisabeth Moss (Silveria)?

“Craig’s Book, the Movie” has become a favorite online party game for me and several friends. Would anyone else care to play?
Learn more about the book and author at the University of Chicago Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Nuns Behaving Badly.

The Page 99 Test: Habitual Offenders.

Writers Read: Craig A. Monson.

--Marshal Zeringue