The Nun's Story (1959) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

The Nun’s Story (1959)

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Danny LIKEIt happens in all actresses' careers. Once the cute young "it" girl, the make it or break it point arrives and the inevitable dramatic role must be performed to prove if you're going to last. Audrey Hepburn, having now played the demure sweetheart to the hilt and tried for something different in Green Mansions (which, if anything, was certainly different), now turned her attention away from romance and towards the ever popular prestige picture.

She found a surefire path through a bestselling biography about a nun's travails in pre-World War II Europe and Africa. The Nun's Story covers a young woman's career as her desires to be a first rate nurse in the Congo come into conflict with the nun's first duties to God. It's not the stuff that makes up today's thrillers, but it's still a compelling tale.

Of course, readers of this site will be familiar with my reviews of religious films, and my rather treacherous relationship with such movies. So I'll be upfront with this: The Nun's Story is not irreligious, but it's not supremely devout. While there is a lot of 'putting our faith in God' moments, the film doesn't, pardon the expression, look beyond the veil to inundate the audience with religious ideas. This is a story about nuns, and no matter how saintly they are portrayed at points, there are always simply human.The massive hive mind of the nun order has nothing to do with god, everything about preaching faith in the face of bullshit bureaucracy.

The Congo is where all the hip nuns want to be.

The trouble begins for the young girl named Gabrielle as she gathers the last of her things; she's determined to join the nearby convent to train and become a nurse in the Congo. With a bright and determined smile, she tries to ignore the resentment of a younger sister and the doting reluctance of her father to enter the church.

There she goes through the training  to become a nun, which is meant to humble and instruct the women. The film is careful in its portrayal but still revealing as ritual and silence become the way of life for Gabrielle, now known as "Sister Luke." The movie reveals the lives of nun's both as one of tradition and control, and it's fascinating to debate the pros and cons of such an order. While they have a reverent determination to be silent, pure creatures, they are also sent to help and aid people all over the world. The nuns' "never ending struggle" is both to God and to the world itself, and often times it demands a selflessness that this movie proposes must be possible, though it's hard to believe, especially for Sister Luke.

Things become difficult for Luke when she goes to study nursing and finds other nuns resenting her intellectualism and enthusiasm. When one nurse calls Sister Luke's skills a form of pride, the lead nun orders her to fail an important exam to prove to God that she has more faith in him than herself. As she finds that she simply cannot, she's transferred to work elsewhere in Europe, while the rest of the nun's head off to that cherry assignment in the Congo.

There's a lot more plot, and eventually Sister Luke finds her way to Africa, even though she doesn't get to work with the natives in the ways she's dreamed of because of another 'you're good, but fuck you' from the nun's order. This sets up her conflicts, as her lifelong love and worship of God is matched against her desire and ambition for greatness. Everyone with whom she spends time is surprised to find someone so fiercely outspoken as nuns are not supposed to speak in such ways as she does; she is both a gift and a curse for her order and both she and them recognize it.

Before she started kicking around in the habit.

I can't make many generalizations about the 1950's (the history major in me screams with frustration at the thought), but there was certainly a trend of homogeneity that should be apparent. The conflicts that are found in The Nun's Story speak to anyone who enter into a period of their life where the world seems inviting and devout but turns out to be as petty and quarrelsome. Sister Luke's inability to conform despite all of her talents seem slyly relevant, especially in a disguise of a religious film.

Of course, some may view this movie and see Luke as the flawed one rather than the order itself. Those people are wrong. I just wanted to point that out.

As for Hepburn's performance, she definitely gave this film her all. Looking appropriately homely, Hepburn modulates between a proud and stubborn woman and one who must be pious and weary. She forgoes makeup for her role, and stays practically hidden in the habit for a long stretch of the running time, but it's the stirring passion of Sister Luke that shines so clearly beneath the nun uniform that makes Hepburn 's work stand out. It's a home run performance that earned her her second Oscar nomination, and broke her off from a string of sagging romantic comedies and dreadful dramas.

The Nun's Story is as slow and as methodical as the world it represents, but rewarding for its peaks into the sanctity of the nuns and the conflicted world they must inhabit. When Sister Luke makes her decision as to what she must do, the camera follows her through the painstaking decision making process. The final shot in this movie isn't something I'll soon forget, nor will I forget the feeling of how badly I wish I could have known what happened next.

Audrey Hepburn Sundays

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Posted by Danny

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