Classical Film Reviews · Film Reviews

Classic Film Review: The Nun’s Story [1959]

The Nun’s Story certainly doesn’t offer the positive depiction of religious life common in 1950s Hollywood, but it’s not an anti-religious or anti-Catholic depiction either. It’s a challenging and controversial work, but impossible to dismiss,

Audrey Hepburn stars as Gabrielle van der Mal, a young woman who enters convent life with high hopes and ideals, but finds disappointing stumbling-blocks that challenge her vows of poverty, chastity and obedience- creating obstacles that are potentially insurmountable. Adapted from Kathryn Hulme’s novel, itself partly based on the experiences of a real-life ex-nun, Gabrielle’s struggles as she becomes Sister Luke are complex and relatable.

Having been brought up by her respectable, doctor father she originally joins the order with the hope of being able to battle tropical diseases in the Congo. Though Sister Luke’s difficulties with the demands of religious life are brought out by her chosen vocation within the order: Why should she cut off an important conversation with a patient when she hears the call to prayer? One insidious moment involves a twisted mother superior suggesting that she display her humility by deliberately failing a nursing exam.

Yet, there is no effort to depict all nuns as warped or frustrated; there are obviously bad apples, but also warm, sympathetic, well-adjusted women who feel much for the young women in their care. A different mother superior later confirms that the first’s advice was wrong and that Sister Luke should try her hardest in exams.

Once her studies are completed she is sent first to work with mental patients in Belgium before being assigned to the Congo, where she hopes to work with natives. The film begins to pick up pace at this point: whilst, personally, I enjoy watching the intricacies of entering a convent and see their daily lives as fascinating.

I’m aware that not everyone else does!

Audrey Hepburn quietly commands the screen, conveying more in the flicker of an eye than most actresses could do by shouting. Her struggles, though rarely directly spoken, are manifest in each scene, growing stronger as time passes. There is never a moment where the audience doesn’t know what Sister Luke is thinking, even if the person she’s speaking to is clueless.

Sister Luke’s troubles with her faith are only intensified when she meets Dr Fortunati (played by Peter Finch) and the war breaks out. Sister Luke approaches her vocation with all-or-nothing commitment but after suffering a wrenching personal tragedy she struggles with hatred and forgiveness. Is this the Christian ideal itself called into question?

No. Whilst Sister Luke has worthy principles and goals, in the end none of us can really give our all. The film is ahead of its time in calmly refusing to take a stand; Neither Sister Luke nor the order is responsible for her unhappiness- life is just something that happens and not everyone fits in certain spaces. The dramatic moments in this film are few and far between but it’s never boring.