Subtlety at Its Finest: The Nun’s Story (1959)

The Nun's Story 2
Audrey Hepburn found acclaim in 1959’s The Nun Story, where she was nominated for the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role.

Hearing a title like The Nun’s Story (1959) could be a turn-off to some people. I, on the other hand, am almost obsessed with film nuns. They are always full of wisdom (like Peggy Wood’s under-appreciated Mother Superior in 1965’s The Sound of Music) or are used in dark and disturbing settings (see the 1947 cult classic Black Narcissus), and that always seems to interest me one way or another. Nun’s Story had elements that excited me – Audrey Hepburn playing what is arguably one of her strongest film roles and director Fred Zinnemann’s robust epic direction at the helm. Still, I did not expect much from a forgotten classic that is almost 60 years old. Pleasantly surprised, Ms. Hepburn’s subtlety was a highlight for the two and half hour period piece.

Based on the experience of Belgian nun Mary Louise Abets of the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary, which became a popular novel in 1956 by Kathryn Hulm, the film version finds Audrey Hepburn in the lead role, now reworked to be Sister Luke (with pre-convent name Gabrielle Van Der Mal). It is unclear why Sister Luke has entered the convent, except we know that she is from a wealthy Belgian family and has studied medicine due to influence of her famous surgeon father. Sister Luke enters despite her family’s concern of the difficultly of religious life.

The young (and beautiful) nun (Audrey does the no-makeup makeup look extremely well) has an intense fixation on being assigned to a Belgian colony in the Congo where she can use her skills in medicine to help those in need. However, her inner battle begins to grow dark and she finds herself perplexed in complicated situations. The hard life of a nun begins to consumer her as she begins to long for a more “worldly existence”. Hepburn, who was never known to be a subtle actress, pulls herself back immensely. As one of the finest performers of her generation, she captures Sister Luke’s troubles and lives within her shoes so well that you forget you are watching one of Hollywood’s brightest stars.

Audrey Hepburn, The Nun's Story (1959) directed by Fred Zinnemann
In one of the film’s darkest scenes, Hollywood superstar Audrey Hepburn is attacked by a mentally insane woman who thinks she is the Archangel

Her difficulties are illustrated in a number of scenes. For instance, there is a scene where Sister Luke is given a notebook to confess all of her sins. She notes down that she is vain by looking into a mirror and also claims that she has failed a test of obedience by drinking a glass of water in between meals. Hepburn’s eyes tells the tale of near madness. In one scene, she is asked by an elder nun to fail her medical exam (which will automatically allow her to go to Congo) to learn humility, and yet Sister Luke’s struggle in accepting the ideas put upon her by the convent is expressed through Audrey’s profound and tingling acting. It is her most quiet performance, and certainly one of her most effective.

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Peter Finch plays Dr. Fortunati, a surgeon Sister Luke meets in the Congo who challenges her loyalty to the religious life

A bulk of the film takes set in the wild Congo. She begins work with a Dr. Fortunati (played superbly by Oscar winner Peter Finch) who drives her to question her existence in religious life. Not in a romantic way, but in a more philosophical one. The Congo scenes act as a climax to Sister’s Luke’s life before she is transported back to Belgian where a final decision of staying needs to be made when the country is heavily struck by World War II.

Fred Zinnemann has directed countless film’s that I think are masterpieces. Though Nun’s Story does not come close to the sentimental pinnacle that is The Search (1948) or the tense atmosphere of Julia (1977), he certainly creates films that feel important and socially relevant. The film is a closer look at the intense religious life of European nuns in the early century. This is something that has not been highlighted particularly well in more recent film. The casting of Hepburn is remarkable, but she is surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that includes an almost unrecognizable Edith Evans as the Mother Superior.

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Sister Luke, portrayed by Audrey Hepburn, confesses her sins to a priest in Fred Zinnemann’s The Nun’s Story

The cinematography is a marvel. Franz Planner photographs the film in dark blues and greys, that make it very atmospheric. Far from the dazzling world of Paris and New York City where we usually find Hepburn in a fashionable creation by Edith Head or Hubert De Givenchy. We are left feeling cold during the final shot, as Sister Luke (spoiler ahead) eventually leaves the convent (quite unusual and dark for the 1950s which wasn’t quite there when it came to more rebellious pictures, especially about religion…religious movie Ben-Hur won Best Picture that year) and walks into the war-torn empty streets of the Belgian town she used to know. The shot prolongs as she walks into the distance, allowing Luke her relief, and setting the audience free from her intense journey.


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