‘Le Pupille’ is an award-winning Italian short film set in World War II Italy, following the young orphan girls at a Catholic boarding school as they yearn for a playful childhood, free of fear-mongering dogma and moral policing nuns.
Warning: This article contains heavy spoilers
It’s Christmas and the young orphan girls at a Catholic boarding school gather around one of them inside the dormitory. The girl has her aunt’s home to go and celebrate the festival in, and she’s scared that others will hate her for it.
Mother Superior Fioralba arrives and sends the little girl away with her aunt while telling all the other ones to prepare their beds. Serafina, one of the young girls, is instantly an odd-on-out as other girls are seen to not be terribly fond of her.
The young girls are kept in line with a strict route with few chances for them to truly bask in the playful phase of their childhood.
It’s also a period of turbulence and strife caused by war, and the Italian soldiers are dying on the battlefield, the news of which is broadcasted via the radio. While the other nuns are a bit less strict, Mother Superior is anything but.
When the radio’s frequency fluctuates and the stations change from the war news broadcast to one that plays songs, the girls erupt in dance and sing with all the repressed cheerfulness they can let out.
Serafina just stands in a corner and when Mother Superior washes all the girls’ tongues with soap because they uttered sinful lyrics like “kiss” and “baby”, Serafina claims she didn’t sing at all.
Mother Superior teaches her a lesson, telling her she’s mistaken if she thinks she hasn’t engaged in sin, since she knows the words to the song, which she can recite when asked to. Serafina is deemed wicked by Mother Superior.
Later, a rich woman seeks the orphan girls’ prayers and blessings for her husband but one of the nuns asks her to come later when the girls will dress up as angels at the Nativity scene.
The woman does return and reveals the need for the girls’ prayers and blessings. Her husband is in love with another woman who she claims is deceiving her, and she wants the girls to pray that he comes to his senses and return to her.
To strengthen the girls’ prayers, she brings a huge cake which she claims contains 72 eggs. The girls salivate at the prospect of such a special dessert. When it comes to the girls savouring the cake, Mother Superior proposes an alternative to the girls.
Keeping in mind all those children who starve due to the famine, she asks all the “good” girls to sacrifice their shares to lord Christ, which all of them agree to do, half-heartedly no doubt. However, Serafina doesn’t.
When asked why that is, the little girl tells her it’s because of what Mother Superior told her — she’s wicked. Mother Superior is bothered by what she deems Serafina’s selfishness.
She cuts a piece of the cake and gives it to Serafina, who can’t eat it since the guilt for her “sin” has been levied on her. However, she eventually expresses some of her rage and claws a handful of the cake off the slice and throws it to the start puppy beside her.
Mother Superior is upset and sends all the girls away to their dormitory. At the end of ‘Le Pupille’, while the rest of the cake is given to the Chimney Sweepers for their work, the girls relish the scraps of cake Serafina shares with all.
Le Pupille ending explained in detail:
Who gets the cake?
Mother Superior hates sweets and since she’s always eager to teach the young girls another lesson about the sins of greed and desire, the girls don’t get to have their shares of the slices as they had been expecting.
Mother Superior ask them to make a sacrifice for Christ — offer their slices to the lord because, during the concurrent war and famine, there are many children who don’t have anything to eat.
Meanwhile, she wishes to send the cake to the bishop, for which she calls upon his herald. But when Serafina refuses to make the same sacrifice that all the “good girls” are supposed to, a slice of the cake is given to her.
Serafina takes a handful of that slice and throws some to the dog and takes some of it with her, to the dormitory, where she shares it with all.
Meanwhile, since the cake sans one slice can’t be given to the bishop, Mother Superior gives the cake to the chimney sweeper that comes later, asking her for the 25 lire as payment.
She only has 5 lire to give him and his other fellow sweepers, but also the cake that would otherwise lie uneaten.
The chimney sweeper takes the cake with delight and later shares it with his pals, as ‘Le Pupille’ concludes with the girls singing and wondering just what the moral of this story was.
What’s the moral of it all?
While the short film itself doesn’t opine on the moral of the letter it’s inspired by, there are a number of takeaways here that derive from the themes.
The young orphan girls live under the dogmatic diatribe fed to them by the religious and strict Mother Superior. The girls can’t even move about in a particularly jovial manner as any and all expression of freedom is deemed a sin in the eyes of God.
And yet, the girls do find pockets of time and opportunities where their anarchical spirits bloom and they revel in the innocent joys of childhood, no matter how little or transient.
Perhaps the moral of the story is that the flame of freedom is unrelenting and always finds the strength to keep burning, no matter the nature of the oppressive winds.
Or perhaps it’s the untarnished innocence of kids that lends them their anarchical temperaments, unlike the morose and maligned hearts of adults who have fallen victim to dogma, faith, and oppressive systems.
Maybe it’s just the virtue of taking delight in simple joys even when the days are rough, like the orphan girls enjoying the scraps of cake at the end of ‘Le Pupille’ and the chimney sweepers hogging on the cake even when it got dropped and dirtied, and they haven’t even been paid fairly.
There are no clear morals in ‘Le Pupille’, at least none that have been tacitly recognised by the film itself. However, there’s a lot to chew on in the sweet short and choose the moral of your liking and interpretation.