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Film Title

The Nun’s Story

Director

Fred Zinnemann

Starring

  • Audrey Hepburn as Gabrielle van der Mal / Sister Luke
  • Peter Finch as Dr. Fortunati
  • Edith Evans as Reverend Mother Emmanuel
  • Peggy Ashcroft as Mother Mathilde
  • Mildred Dunnock as Sister Margharita
  • Beatrice Straight as Mother Christophe
  • Dean Jagger as Dr. van der Mal
  • Colleen Dewhurst as Archangel Gabriel

A beautifully restrained yet quietly revealing look at the struggles of one nun and the personal battle with her spirited nature, The Nun’s Story is impressively moving and evocative in what it accomplishes. It holds your interest in how it delves into the life of a nun and owing to thoughtful direction from Fred Zinnemann and a simply luminous performance from Audrey Hepburn.

Gabrielle van der Mal is a vivacious young Belgian woman from a middle class family in the 1930’s. Her father is a prominent surgeon and Gabrielle hopes to one day be serving in the Congo. We meet her as she enters a Catholic Convent to become a nun. We witness the various facets of extensive training to be a nun over a couple of months, with each challenging Gabrielle more and more with her personal feelings. Eventually, she is made a nun and given the name Sister Luke. Yet she faces disappointments and disillusionment in many duties, and yearns to fulfill her dream of helping in the Congo. Although she distinguishes herself in the medical field, she is not allowed to feel pride for doing so as it is considered selfish rather than selfless. Despite this and spiritual as well as personal conflict, Sister Luke perseveres. She is briefly assigned to assist in a mental hospital, where she is nearly killed by a violently schizophrenic patient. Eventually she is rewarded with an assignment in the Congo, yet finds that she is treating the European patients rather than the natives. She assists the no-nonsense and atheist Dr. Fortunati in surgery, and they develop an at first strained but eventually respectful friendship. Fortunati can see that she is struggling with her religious turmoil and that he believes she is more cut out to be a nurse, rather than a nun. Yet desperate to prove herself, she excels but works herself too hard, contracting tuberculosis in the process. After getting better, she still has many questions about what her true calling is. But as her internal tribulation escalates and World War II nears, Sister Luke must ultimately decide whether she is really cut our to be a nun or whether she should leave.

Fred Zinnemann subtly yet with observant eyes directs this take of the complexities of oneself and the question of religion. His direction isn’t overly flashy but in keeping with the story, beautifully elegant and probing. That isn’t to say that the film isn’t beautifully shot( in fact, the juxtaposition between the cold confines of the convent and the supposed freedom of the Congo are gorgeously envisioned), but the main focus is on the human soul. It’s a drama but not one of overt and histrionic heights; more one of elegantly composed dilemmas and poignant questions. The Nun’s Story is endlessly fascinating in how it explores a world that is unseen by many and only really hinted at in other material. You feel like a fly on the wall watching as Sister Luke undergoes the tests that prove difficult in order to becoming a nun, with all the rituals and ceremonial acts ( the cutting of ones hair, the long periods of silence and shedding of the past) displayed in great detail for us to view. Many films are centred on nuns, but The Nun’s Story, with clear-eyed and objective execution, really finds both a strangeness and uniqueness in how these women dedicate their whole lives to religious servitude. It functions into how it might prove extremely trying for someone spirited and uncertain, like the major dilemma that Sister Luke finds herself in as she attempts to do good, but is ironically halted by her vows. Some movie fans may just believe that a film like this would be boring of just religious propaganda, but nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, The Nun’s Story offers up much food for thought on issues of personal freedom, obedience and the many factions of religion. It doesn’t take sides and favour one thing over the other, resulting in a rewarding and challenging film. And for a film that runs for two and a half hours, it is largely enthralling to watch. A few minor lulls can be forgotten due to the impactful power and grace of The Nun’s Story. Franz Waxman composes a beautiful score that is driven by emotion and soulfulness, that fits with both the revealing personal side of the film and the spiritual context.

One of the best things that The Nuns Story boasts is a touching performance by Audrey Hepburn. With a passion and desire to do well, we understand why Sister Luke would want to be a nun. But on the flip side, we witness her intense battle with adhering to obedience and the rigid vows she must live by, that is imbued with poise and expressive turmoil by Hepburn. Her performance is often one of quiet and thoughtful moments; but one where you can observe all the hardship, longing and fight of a woman attempting to fathom her way in what she wants to be her calling. Such luminous and subtle emotion come through powerfully from Audrey Hepburn in a moving performance that stands as one of her best. While everyone else is ideally cast in their parts, it is Audrey Hepburn you will remember the most for her emotion and clarity. Peter Finch excellently portrays the talented doctor in the Congo, who lends his thoughts to Sister Luke while gaining a new level of respect for her, despite their wide differences. Fleshing out the main supporting cast are a fine group of actresses as nuns of different authorities and temperaments that Sister Luke encounters. There is Edith Evans as the stern Reverend Mother who isn’t above feelings of care, Peggy Ashcroft as the largely content and experienced guide, Mildred Dunnock as one of the nuns who acts as the first teacher and Beatrice Straight as the kindest and most understanding of religious women. All of these actresses, regardless of how long they are on screen for, contribute nicely nuanced work, showing the different aspects of religious faith and devotion. The same excellence is also present with Dean Jagger as the devastated father who wants his daughter to succeed, but knows that she will find the life of a nun turbulent. And not forgetting Colleen Dewhurst, the embodiment of menace when playing a schizophrenic patient at the sanitarium.

Stirring and subtly powerful, The Nun’s Story is a film to treasure for how it deals with the dilemma of ones calling and for what is to me, one of Audrey Hepburn’s greatest performances.

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