The Nun’s Story (1959)

Director: Fred Zinnemann
Screenwriter: Robert Anderson

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Robert Anderson, the man who wrote the screen adaptation of Kathryn Hulme’s fictionalized account of her lover Mary Louise Habets’ experiences as a nun, died on Tuesday at the age of 91. Anderson, who always considered himself a playwright (movies were what he did for money), produced serious-minded works that respected the intelligence and maturity of audiences to deal with such hot-button topics as homosexuality, aging, and the loss of faith. Called “a gentleman in an age of assassins,” Anderson produced such sensitive and powerful works as Tea and Sympathy and I Never Sang for My Father. The Nun’s Story is a rich and rewarding look at religious life that eschews pious platitudes to explore both its mysteries and its cold, hard facts.

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Gabrielle van der Mal (Audrey Hepburn), the eldest daughter of a renowned Belgian surgeon (Dean Jagger), is about to embark on a long journey that she hopes will take her into a close relationship with God and enable her to do His work as a nurse in the Congo. The film opens as she fingers her engagement ring, then resolutely removes it and places it on the desk in her bedroom along with some other items atop a note that says, “Return to Jean.” She hears her father plinking out some Mozart on the piano in the drawing room. She quietly descends the stairs, comes up behind him, and joins him at the keyboard. When he turns to face her, he says “Your hat is on crooked.” “I’ve been trying to practice putting things on without…” The words “a mirror” are left unsaid. The pair goes into town and views the convent across the square. “I can see you poor. I can see you chaste. But I can’t see you obeying their Rule,” Dr. van der Mal says. “You don’t have to go through with it if you don’t want to.” Gabrielle merely looks down, deflecting his implied question with a demure but determined gesture. They walk to the door and enter a room filled with parents and daughters. After some tearful farewells, the would-be nuns pass behind the door of the inner sanctum and into a world where they will be taught to create internal silence to better devote themselves to prayer and learn obedience to the Holy Rule.

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The film takes us on the journey from Gabrielle to Sister Luke at a deliberate pace, missing few fascinating details that form the strict lives of discipline and striving for perfection that make a girl into a nun and a nun into a representative of Christ on Earth. At first, the postulants learn mere behaviors, such as hiding their hands when they are not being used for prayer or work, standing near the walls as they move through the halls as an act of humility, writing their transgressions in a small notebook, publicly accusing themselves of everything from being late to prayer, to feeling proud about doing a task properly and talking during the Grand Silence. Observing how they live, for example, sleeping in a common room with each bed surrounded by curtains, and their behavior, from using the sign language that allows them to communicate, to bowing and kneeling before higher-ranking nuns, to donning their habit for the first time in a rote and ritualized way, compares favorably with the experience I had viewing the lives of real Carthusian monks in Into Great Silence.

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In short order, Simone (Patricia Bosworth), Gabrielle’s closest companion in the convent, gives up her vocation, while assuring Gabrielle that she is strong enough to complete the journey. “I’m the weakest of us all!” Gabrielle protests, saying she is constantly in error. Nonetheless, Simone’s prediction comes true as we watch the truly beautiful and awe-inspiring investiture of Sister Luke and her fellow novices as brides of Christ, again, with the close, unhurried observation of a way of life that has been centuries in the making.

Sister Luke is sent for training to an institute for tropical medicine to prepare her for working in the Congo. She’s an outstanding student, but put upon by Sister Pauline (Margaret Phillips), a veteran of the Congo and an average student who fears Sister Luke will take her place. Sister Luke takes her problem to Mother Marcella (Ruth White), who tells Sister Luke she has been given a golden opportunity to prove her humility; Mother Marcella then asks her to fail her final exam. The scene in front of her examiners is one of high drama, as Hepburn so evokes Sister Luke’s inner struggle that she actually breaks a sweat. That the charge from Mother Marcella was a particularly cruel Gordian Knot makes no difference; for passing her exam (in fact, placing fourth in a class of 80), Sister Luke is denied a posting to the Congo and is sent instead to work in a sanatorium for the mentally ill. The waste of her talent seems stupid, considering the great need of the Congolese and their overworked medical staff.

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After a somewhat harrowing stint at the sanatorium, including being attacked by a dangerous patient called the Archangel (Colleen Dewhurst) for disobediently tending to her without help, Sister Luke finally gets posted to the Congo. Her happiness while moving among the natives in the black hospital and holding the babies of Congolese mothers breaks her nun’s proper reserve. Yet still she is to be tested. When she learns she is to work at the white hospital under Dr. Fortunati (Peter Finch), she is devastated. The scenes in the Congo are a bit too picture-perfect, but this idealization is tempered by filming real lepers in a downriver leper colony Sister Luke visits.

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Sister Luke buries her disappointment in work to such an extent that she weakens her entire system and develops early-stage tuberculosis. Hepburn’s darkly circled eyes, drawn face, taut and nervous frame, and constant edge of fatigue work brutally to reflect Sister Luke’s worry that should her disease be uncovered, she will be sent back to Belgium for good. Fortunati, initially jaundiced about working with yet another nun, then surprised at her competence and increasingly reliant on her great skill, manages to keep her in country and cure her TB. Unfortunately, when an important benefactor who has fallen ill must be sent back to Belgium, Sister Luke is the only logical choice to accompany him. With World War II brewing, she fears she will never be able to return to the Congo. And indeed, Rev. Mother Emmanuel (Dame Edith Evans), the highest-ranking nun in the order, refuses to send her back. Her struggles in Belgium, her painful war losses, and her acknowledgment that she has never found the internal silence to become a great nun finally force her, with all the determination she had when entering the convent, to give up her vocation and return to the world.

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This 2.5 hour film has the time and the ambition to take us all the way into Sister Luke’s world and experience with her the joys, disappointments, and, most of all, the pain of trying to bend her will to that of God and the sisters. Dr. Fortunati tells her that he’s worked with nuns as long as he can remember and found there are two kinds: the obedient ones without a stitch of imagination and the worldly ones. Sister Luke, he says, is the latter and not cut out to be a nun. When Rev. Mother Emmanuel refuses to allow Sister Luke to work at the local hospital when she returns from the Congo, her reason is that Sister Luke must attend to her vocation—she joined the order to become a nun, not a nurse, and her spiritual life must always come first.

Herein lies the conflict Anderson and Zinnemann have highlighted in obvious and subtle ways—Gabrielle wanted to become a nun, but she wanted to practice medicine in the Congo even more. In the strict and arbitrary world of the convent, God is the only master. Like army training, all convent exercises, teachings, and assignments are designed to root out individuality and create vessels to carry out God’s wishes. There was nothing half-hearted about Gabrielle’s attempts to become Sister Luke—all or nothing, she says, was her Rule before she entered the convent—and we can see through Audrey Hepburn’s remarkable performance the deep sincerity in Sister Luke’s dedication to being a nun, the automatic behaviors she has adopted over the two decades of her vocation and her anguish at all her faults.

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The supporting performances are wonderful, particularly all of the ranking sisters whose guidance rules the lives of Sister Luke and her fellow sisters. Mildred Dunnock is here a placid and patient mistress of the postulants. Dame Peggy Ashcroft is a compassionate, but obedient head of the mission in Aftica. And Dame Edith Evans is old-school Catholicism at its best, firmly guiding her nuns in a clear-eyed manner than can look, but is not meant to be, cruel.

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Peter Finch is young and dashing—a prototype of the rude doctors we see on TV all the time. Other viewers of this film detect some sexual tension between Hepburn and Finch’s Dr. Fortunati, but I didn’t see it. Hepburn’s Sister Luke truly seems modest, even asexual, to me. When a native man asks her why a young woman like her doesn’t have a husband, rather than try to explain the difficult concepts of Catholicism, she says quite believably, “I do have a husband. But, He’s in heaven.”

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Zinnemann’s direction is very full-bodied, more so than many of his films. There’s hardly a stock type in the film, and he strives to bring as much realism as Hollywood would allow to his African scenes. I was incredibly impressed with the cinematography of Franz Planer, who is a master of shadow and color, creating beauty in every scene while still somehow making everything look real. There’s very little of the crescendo-music-soaring-looks-heavenward that many religious films are made of. His work with Hepburn’s radiant face brings out so many looks that have nothing to do with glamor and everything to do with the truth of her character.

Finally, of course, is The Word. Read this remarkable exchange between Sister Luke and Rev. Mother Emmanuel:

Rev. Mother Emmanuel: Have you struggled long enough to say surely that you’ve come to the end?
Sister Luke: I think I’ve been struggling all these years, Reverend Mother. In the beginning each struggle seemed different from the one before it. But then they began to repeat, and I saw they all had the same core: obedience. Without question, without inner murmuring. Perfect obedience as Christ practiced it. As I no longer can.
Rev. Mother Emmanuel: Yes?
Sister Luke: There are times when my conscience asks which has priority. It or the Holy Rule? When the bell calls me to chapel, I often have to sacrifice what might be the decisive moment in a spiritual talk with a patient. I’m late every day for chapel or refectory or both. When I have night duty I break the Grand Silence because I can no longer cut short a talk with a patient who seems to need me. Mother, why must God’s helpers be struck dumb by five bells in the very hours when men in trouble want to talk about their souls?

Anderson truly made this film more than the sum of its many magnificent parts.

The Nun’s Story was nominated for eight Oscars the same year that the moribund Ben-Hur cleaned up. It won not a one—yet more evidence that even back in 1959, the Oscars were a joke. On Oscar night this year, skip the broadcast and watch this movie; it’s long, but not as long as the Oscars, and infinitely more deserving of your attention and admiration.

  • Rod spoke:
    11th/02/2009 to 8:41 pm

    Last week after watching the gutless, depthless Doubt I purposefully re-viewed The Nun’s Story myself to wash the taste out of my mouth. It is a superb piece of work and Zinneman’s best film, but it will never get the reputation it deserves because of its total lack of fanboy appeal. It’s Hepburn’s best performance by a country mile, too.
    But I wouldn’t use it as a club to bash Ben-Hur with. I’m an unabashed Ben-Hur fan. The two films share many qualities – rigorous direction, intricately played-out scenes, great use of the cinematic frame, and attempt to get beyond Sunday School Christianity, forcibly delving into the schism between need to live in the real world and combat its ills whilst acknowledging the powerful need for the mystical.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/02/2009 to 9:35 am

    Rod, I can’t really disagree with your comments on Ben-Hur, yet I am always, always underwhelmed by it. I like the silent version so very much, and for all its technical advances, it feels a bit bloodless to me in comparison.
    Do you really think fanboys are an audience for religious films? I can’t really imagine fanboys lining up to see Doubt.

  • Rod spoke:
    12th/02/2009 to 7:07 pm

    I didn’t mean fanboy in a specific comic-book-movie fashion. In mean it more in that form that’s as pervasive as ever in film culture now as ever – films that are essentially character and dialogue based, meditative in spirit, or set in historical periods but aren’t swashbucklers, are derided as inert and uncinematic, whilst something showy and violent, no matter how stupid, is still thought to be more inherently cinematic. There’s truth in this, but it’s also true that I think such arguments stem a little bit from the action-loving adolescent in many of us. Hence, fanboy.
    I don’t think Doubt has fanboy appeal, either. Maybe camp appeal, for its tremendous overacting.
    I do see the sexual tension between Luke and Forunati. Gabrielle plays asexual, but it doesn’t always work. It’s hinted, if one looks very quickly at the beginning, that at least part of her motivation for taking the veil is a romance that didn’t work out. But it’s not that they’d jump in the sack in other circumstances, which is what we usually mean by sexual tension. It’s more a strong character bond between the pair. They’re very similar in temperament and ability. She’s just as energetic and life-hungry as he is, he’s just as awed by devotion as she is – only coming at it from utterly distinct viewpoints.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    12th/02/2009 to 7:45 pm

    I understand the distinction, though I don’t think I’d use fanboy for that kind of cinephile. I think people who are excessively focused on the image and its movement are quite common across the spectrum of cinephilia – particularly at the “high” end. A more erudite sort of fanboy, I suppose.
    I don’t know if I think of what you’re describing as sexual tension, perhaps just affinity, friendship. I don’t think of Jean as anything more than a plot point that can bring us full circle visually and thematically to Gabrielle removing her wedding ring before leaving the convent. The real woman on whom the novel was based was a lesbian, and I think the friendship Gabrielle has with Simone has more than a hint of sexuality to it.

  • Rick spoke:
    16th/02/2009 to 3:54 pm

    I like this piece, Marilyn. It’s got some of your strongest writing. I’ll have to see this film.
    Things have loosened up considerably since Vat II. I did my medical chaplain internship in a Catholic hospital; the nuns who ran that place would no more break off counseling a patient to go to Lauds or Matins than I would have.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    19th/02/2009 to 10:25 am

    The Nun’s Story was nominated for eight Oscars the same year that the moribund Ben-Hur cleaned up. It won not a one—yet more evidence that even back in 1959, the Oscars were a joke.”
    Marilyn, you are embarrasing me with that statement! LOL!!! I just last week penned a long defense of BEN-HUR as an intimate emotional powerhouse, in response of my colleague Allan Fish’s dismissal of the film (he was even more scathing that you) and I have had fondness for this film for many years. You’d be interested in knowing though,(if you don’t already) that BEN-HUR did not just win the Best Picture Oscar that year, it also won the far more significant New York Film Critics Circle award for Best Picture, showing that the film was also embraced by the intelligensia.(at that time anyway) The Oscars are a joke though. I just feel that they had it right in 1959.
    This is a tremendous piece of writing on a most fascinating film. It may not quite be Zinnemann’s best (HIGH NOON, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS?) but it’s surely his most underappreciated.
    I saw INTO GREAT SILENCE two years ago at its Film Forum run in Manhattan, and my wife has never forgiven me for that! Ha! Still, amidst her sustained protestations I still was mesmerized by it, although I can well-understand your argument that (in the case) the authenticity was rather stifling, if I am interpreting what you are saying here correctly.
    Rick:
    “Things have loosened up considerably since Vat II. I did my medical chaplain internship in a Catholic hospital; the nuns who ran that place would no more break off counseling a patient to go to Lauds or Matins than I would have.”
    Wow, that’s amazing! I never realized that you completed this either. Kudos to you Sir!

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    19th/02/2009 to 10:28 am

    One more thing Marilyn: I am grateful to you for mentioning Robert Anderson’s I NEVER SANG FOR MY FATHER, one of the most overwhelmingly powerful American dramas of the past 40 years. I have celebrated and promoted that film for decades. TEA AND SYMPATHY is also strong stuff, although it’s rather stilted, stagy and dated. Still I have fondness for it.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    19th/02/2009 to 10:55 am

    Sam – I think the film ranks are evenly divided about Ben-Hur. I might have liked it more if I could have erased the silent version from my mind. For me, the comparison is no comparison at all. However, you and Rod are people whose opinions I respect, and therefore, I may have to revisit the two films again soon.
    I actually loved Into Great Silence. Yes, it’s somewhat impenetrable – you can’t just “feel” faith by watching the movie – but I found the repetition, solitude, and quiet created the space the nuns in The Nun’s Story call the internal silence that can form a vessel for faith, if such an experience really can occur. It’s a film that calls for patience, but that has never been a problem for me. And for an atheist, I have a strong affinity for films about religion, and especially about faith.
    I Never Sang for My Father is truly a gigantic achievement. We are certainly not alone in appreciating it.

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