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Two nuns, one microphone and a question for Chicago: 'Are you happy?'

Like “The War at Home,” another ‘60s-focused documentary returning this week to the Gene Siskel Film Center, the early Kartemquin Films project “Inquiring Nuns” captures a specific time and place in American history while speaking directly to you, the viewer, in late 2018.

I doubt “Inquiring Nuns” will ever lose its fascination for Chicagoans; it’s as Chicago a movie as Chicago ever produced. And as verite cinema, blatantly and beautifully ripped off from the 1961 French documentary “Chronicle of a Summer,” it gets better and more touching with the passing decades.

It’s back for a weeklong run, and there’ll be various guests (co-director and Kartemquin guru Gordon Quinn among them) throughout the Film Center revival. If you haven’t seen the film, all of 66 minutes in length, this will be the sharpest version yet available, a digitally restored clean-up of the original 16 millimeter picture shot in late 1967 by co-directors Quinn and Gerald Temaner.

“Inquiring Nuns” was never intended for general release. Quinn and Temaner made it for $16,000, financed by Chicago’s Catholic Adult Education Center. Out of a group of young Roman Catholic nuns belonging to St. Denis Parish, the young filmmakers chose Sister Marie Arne and Sister Mary Campion to wield a microphone and ask a random collection of strangers the same question that guided the philosophical interrogations in “Chronicle of a Summer”: “Are you happy?”

The answers gathered by the nuns cover every imaginable topic pertinent to American citizens in 1967. The war in Vietnam comes up a great deal; so does dissatisfaction with work and home lives. The conversations take place on Wabash Street under the “L” tracks; in an exhibition room at the Art Institute; outside a supermarket; on the sidewalk outside a church. Sixty-six minutes later, the film has done its job. It’s a gently profound wonder.

The nuns did not stay nuns. Today, Sister Marie Arne is Kathleen Westling, married to former Tribune sports writer Gary Reinmuth. They live part of the year in New Buffalo, Mich., and part of the year in Tampa, Fla. They visit Chicago a good deal, she says, and they’re regular volunteer ushers at Steppenwolf Theatre.

If the same film were made today, Westling says, “I bet we’d get a lot of the same answers. But it’d be harder to get people to answer. People are a little more suspicious today. Cautious.”

I ask her why. She points to the current president. Life in Trump’s America, she believes, is “more divisive than the country was in 1968. Very discouraging.” Pause. “Very discouraging. The amount of lying that goes on now … ”

That said: In “Inquiring Nuns” one disgruntled Chicagoan calls out then-President Johnson as “a crook.” Things change, sometimes radically, and yet the echoes of the past — this film is one of them — remind us where we’ve been. And who we are.

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.

mjphillips@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @phillipstribune

“Inquiring Nuns” — Four stars (out of four)

No MPAA rating.

Running time: 1:06

Opens: Friday (continuing through Thurs. Dec. 6) at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.; www.siskelfilmcenter.org.

MORE COVERAGE: From the Tribune's Chris Borrelli: a 2013 assessment of the origins and impact of "Inquiring Nuns" »

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