While the rest of the world is acclimating to the automobile in lieu of horses, the remote convent of Our Lady of Mercy in the Spanish sierra remains isolated in its deeply forested terrain of the early 1900s. The 16th-century edifice bears the scars of age, the number of nuns residing there reduced to only six, perhaps the last holy women who will inhabit the holy enterprise. The monthly visit of Bishop Estrada provides brief contact with the outside world, plus the few trips to town for provisions in a donated Model-T Ford, a gift from the bishop, the convent mule kept for emergencies. Days are spent in prayer and good works. The aged Sister Carlota cares for stray dogs; another sister secretly plays records on a gramophone, a stocking muffling the notes of the music.
The sudden appearance of a newborn child - a boy - in a suitcase is inexplicable, albeit easily discovered. Sister Maria Inez, the Mother Superior of Our Lady of Mercy, views the arrival of this precious child as the miracle she has been praying for all her life. God has answered her humble entreaties, given her a sign at last. Thus does Karnezis introduce the serpent into the Garden of Eden, Sister Maria Inez taking the infant to her room. The careful structure of convent life doesn’t allow for rebellion or the questioning of authority, but the effect of the child on the convent gradually reveals hairline cracks that might never become serious but for the sisters’ inflamed emotions and confusion, fueled by Sister Ana’s certainty that Satan’s business is afoot.
The predictably biddable nuns balk as Sister Maria Inez declares she will keep the child and be solely responsible for his care, refusing to contact the bishop or the authorities. As she sews tiny embroidered garments for her personal “miracle,” the women entrusted to her spiritual care fall victim to the cajoling of Sister Ana, as convinced in her interpretation of the visitation of evil as the Mother Superior is that God has delivered the long-sought answer to her soul’s torment. The inherent conflict between sanctity and fanaticism is revealed in Sister Maria Inez’s increasingly obsessive behavior, her fear that someone might harm the child. Sister Beatriz hovers outside the older nun’s door, hoping to temper the woman’s anxiety by providing a sense of normalcy where there is none: “Those whom God wishes to destroy he first makes mad.”
Prayer and reflection, sacrifice and good works define ordered convent life, but years of neglect have honed this once-thriving place to a mere six souls, family and origins of no significance once they are accepted into Our Lady of Mercy. New names are chosen, histories relegated to the past as the contemplative life is embraced. Ironic, then, that this innocent child should evoke such powerful emotions, from miracle to devil’s spawn. Sister Maria Inez’s reaction to the child is unexpected, but the depth of the chasm once opened is predictable, God’s will usurped by a fanaticism bred of isolation and the desperation of tainted souls. Tragedy awaits as pride collides with true humility, the explanation impossibly banal - and human: “I am human and nothing that is human is alien to me.”