Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Nuns in the movies haven't fared very well, at least as a serious subject. When they do show up they're used in ways that reflect an outside viewpoint: Stern-faced teachers in Catholic schools, or hospital nurses of exaggerated virtue. The two most popular filmic impressions of nuns are Ingrid Bergman's idealized, slightly sexualized Sister Mary Benedict in The Bells of St. Mary's and Peggy Wood's singing Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music. The typical use of nuns in film is as clowns -- cute little pixies in habits playing practical jokes, riding motorcycles or forming a gospel chorus for Whoopi Goldberg.
For the other side of the issue, Fred Zinnemann's 1959 The Nun's Story is still unsurpassed. This lengthy and serious record of the interior life of a nun must have been a nightmare to adapt. The film communicates the emotional conflicts of aspiring to a seemingly unattainable goal -- to become a selfless, sacrificing non-person for whom the love of God takes precedence over every mortal concern.
Gabrielle van der Mal (Audrey Hepburn) takes the solemn vows of a holy order even though it means dire hardship and a severe way of life. As Sister Luke she finds academic success in nursing school but suffers from perceived sins of pride, along with a headstrong mindset inconsistent with her calling. She's unable to atone for these flaws by purposely failing a major school exam, and is kept from her goal of nursing in the Congo. After a time helping in a Belgian asylum Sister Luke is sent to Africa, only to find more disappointment: She is assigned to help Dr. Fortunati (Peter Finch) in the white hospital when she really hoped to work with the natives. Sister Luke distinguishes herself and wins the admiration of all but still is not convinced that she's attained her spiritual goal. Sent back to Belgium on assignment, she is prevented from returning to Africa by the outbreak of WW2. She is soon ignoring all the rules, helping a novice carry out resistance work.
Forget lovable nuns, amusing nuns, flying nuns and lovesick nuns: This intense picture is the closest that a Hollywood film has come to seriously considering what choosing a religious life really means. Audrey Hepburn became a movie star because she was transparent -- beneath the glamour and fashions we always knew that she was a clear-eyed, honest young woman. In The Nun's Story she uses that quality without any make-up, literal or figurative. We know that Hepburn's Gabrielle is rejecting a young man to become a nun; we see her happily abandon his ring with everything else she possesses. Her father (Dean Jagger) is a noted surgeon who may have hoped she would become a doctor. He instead must watch as she leaves for a life of self-denial and servitude. Gabrielle does take a golden pen with her, indicating a flaw in her mindset, an eye for worldly things.
Robert Anderson's script structures Gabrielle's indoctrination as the film's first act. It's a process of discipline and training to follow three solemn vows, Chastity, Poverty and Obedience. The same strength of character that inspired Gabrielle to want to become a nun, now hinders her efforts. As Sister Luke, she's able to leave the material world behind but cannot shake her pride -- which surfaces in her biology class as a competitive spirit. Her school superior (Ruth White) forces her to confront her unacceptable priorities by telling her to purposely fail her exams. This she cannot do, proving that she's an individual first and a nun second.
A model nun in every other respect, Sister Luke's inherent flaw becomes obvious when she disobeys instructions and is almost killed by a schizophrenic patient (Colleen Dewhurst). Try as she might, Gabrielle cannot strip away the Self and become this abstract concept. Some may call the process a form of voluntary brainwashing, but it's common enough in other disciplines requiring a high level of conformity. The Nun's Story would make a fine comparison piece with Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket.
Sister Luke learns more harsh lessons in the Congo, where she's placed not with the natives and children she dreamed of serving but in a hospital for white patients under the charge of "a genius and a devil," Peter Finch's Dr. Fortunati. She becomes his top assistant and a fine medic but constantly breaks the rule dictating that she should be a nun first in all things. She repeatedly takes a leadership initiative without consulting her superiors.
It's important to note that these supposed flaws bother Sister Luke much more than her overseers in the order, which is both forgiving and understanding. She has exemplary qualities: Dedication, courage and forgiveness. She attracts a Catholic convert through her example. But in her heart Sister Luke knows she's a failure. She connives with Dr. Fortunati to hide an illness that by rights should send her back to Belgium.
When circumstances do take Sister Luke back to Europe, the pressures of the war cause her to lose hope that she has a future as a nun. She cannot forgive the enemy and defies a mandate to maintain neutral in the struggle. The end of the film is Gabrielle's grim divorce-like exit from the order. It's a self-imposed exile from one unnatural life into an unknown future in the Nazi-occupied outside world.
Audrey Hepburn is perfectly suited to The Nun's Story. We're accustomed to her smiling face and extremes of emotion and therefore scrutinize her close-up scenes for signs of stress or glimmerings of forbidden pleasure. Understanding the order's life of obedient restraint becomes stressful for us as well -- we want to share in her success and have just as hard a time as she does resisting "self oriented" emotions. Zinnemann's somewhat impersonal style is also a good fit. Passages of time are depicted with hard cuts, and exterior concerns such as the battles for the Low Countries are represented by austere shots of nature instead of the expected elaborate montages. Sister Luke's warm leave-taking from the Congo is expressed in only a few shots. It is capped by a master angle from a moving train that reveals smiling nuns, patients (including a priest whose leg Sister Luke has saved) and finally Dr. Fortunati. It is what it is, a moment completely opposed to the order's avowed principles, and it cannot be suppressed.
Zinnemann surrounds Hepburn with an astonishingly good cast, a Who's Who of professional actresses. Edith Evans (The Importance of Being Earnest), Peggy Ashcroft (A Passage to India), Mildred Dunnock (Baby Doll), Beatrice Straight (Patterns, Network), Patricia Collinge (Shadow of a Doubt) and Ruth White (Midnight Cowboy) are Sister Luke's superiors and teachers. Colleen Dewhurst (Annie Hall) makes a brief but spectacular appearance as the murderous asylum inmate "Archangel Gabriel." In this particular context, we wonder if her mental problem started by trying too hard to reconcile spiritual values with the real world.
Peter Finch is a formidable temptation as Dr. Fortunati, while Dean Jagger is appropriately heartbroken as Gabrielle's understanding father. Lionel Jeffries (First Men In the Moon) and Niall MacGinnis (Night of the Demon) have fleeting but effective moments as a biology teacher and a Priest upriver in the Congo. MacGinnis' Father Vermeuhlen would seem to be a variation on a Conradian Kurtz figure -- he spent years in sin with a native woman, yet returned to his calling to care for unfortunates in an isolated leper colony.
Warner DVD's disc of The Nun's Story is a handsome enhanced transfer of a film difficult to appreciate on a small television monitor. Seen in rich color with its proper framing, it is easier to spot relevant details in Zinnemann's wide shots and to read subtle shadings in Audrey Hepburn's expressions. Franz Waxman's dramatic score closely tracks the emotions Sister Luke is trying to suppress yet never becomes intrusive. A much-repeated detail about The Nun's Story is that Zinnemann dropped the music from his final shot, which frames Hepburn in a doorway. It is said to be the first Warners picture in which the final "The End" title comes up without a musical accompaniment. Every piece of music Zinnemann auditioned characterized Sister Luke's final decision as either happy or sad, and he wanted the end to be completely ambiguous.
The disc has a trailer, but no other extras.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Nun's Story rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 3, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2006 Glenn Erickson
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