Nun’s Story, The (1959)

“Your personal wishes cease to exist when you enter that door.”

Synopsis:
The daughter (Audrey Hepburn) of a renowned surgeon (Dean Jagger) becomes a nun and is sent to the Belgian Congo, where she works with Dr. Fortunati (Peter Finch) in a hospital and struggles to remain true to the tenets of her faith.

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Review:
Upon learning that Fred Zinnemann’s 2.5-hour The Nun’s Story — based on a factually-inspired novel by Kathryn Hulme — became Warner Brothers’ highest grossing film at the time of its release, one feels a renewed respect for the tolerances and interests of mid-century American audiences, given that it’s a lengthy, serious, introspective movie about the quest for a meaningful spiritual existence. Yet it was likely the undeniable star-power of Audrey Hepburn — in perhaps her best-suited role — that drew viewers to the theater; while there’s nary a Dior outfit in sight, she remains as captivating to watch as ever. Her wonderfully expressive face tells us everything we need to know about the complicated trajectory her character chooses to undergo, shedding her prior identity as Gabrielle van der Mal — beloved daughter of a devoted father (Dean Jagger) — to become “Sister Luke”.

The film’s first half-hour is arguably its most compelling — simply from an ethnographic perspective — as we’re made privy to the ritualistic experiences of novitiate nuns, whose lives are conducted largely in silence. After this, the narrative turns to the quietly compelling drama of Hepburn’s struggle to remain “Selfless”, as she’s trained for work as a nurse, and is given no choice in where she’s sent or who she’s asked to work with. Audiences must have wondered what — if anything — would be made of Sister Luke’s close working situation with Peter Finch’s enigmatic and handsome Dr. Fortunati (what a name!); thankfully, both the script and the performances preserve the essence of their platonic mutual respect for one another. The film’s final half-hour, as Sister Luke reaches a crisis in her personal identity, serves as a fine culmination to the meaty and respectful narrative we’ve experienced until then.

In sum, The Nun’s Story will likely surprise you in the way it manages to present a saga of spiritual angst within such a compelling and engaging narrative framework. In a way, this would make a fascinating double-bill with Black Narcissus (1947), given that the two films — though obviously told in radically divergent cinematic styles — are thematically related in that they are both concerned with nuns who question their devotion to their order. Both films also feature a fine cast of supporting performers: as DVD Savant notes, The Nun’s Story offers a virtual “Who’s Who of professional actresses” popping up at various times throughout its narrative, including Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft, Mildred Dunnock, Beatrice Straight, Patricia Collinge, Ruth White, Colleen Dewhurst, and Dorothy Alison (the latter in a truly heartbreaking and memorable bit part). The male roster, while naturally smaller, is also impressive, and includes not only Finch but Dean Jagger (in a small but pivotal role as Hepburn’s father), Lionel Jeffries, and Niall MacGinnis. The collective energies that went into crafting this lovingly told, powerful tale make it well worth a film fanatic’s time to sit through.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Audrey Hepburn as Sister Luke (nominated by Peary as one of the Best Actresses of the Year in his Alternate Oscars)
  • Peter Finch as Dr. Fortunati
  • Many fine supporting performances


  • The fascinating first half-hour, in which Hepburn is indoctrinated into her order

  • An interesting ethnographic glimpse at life in the Congo


  • Franz Planer’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as a surprisingly powerful film about spiritual faith and personal identity. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

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One Response to “Nun’s Story, The (1959)”

  1. A once-must – as an incisive document of its subject matter; and for Hepburn’s best performance.

    It’s rather amazing – the considerable range of views of nuns on film. If an atheist were to sit through a Nuns Film Festival and run the gamut, it’s likely he/she would come out more confused than before. Are they somewhat happy-go-lucky? (‘The Trouble with Angels’) Are they insane? (‘The Devils’) Much is dependent on what Order the nuns belong to and what rules were in effect under which Pope’s reign. But perhaps more than any other film on the subject, ‘The Nun’s Story’ does capture the basic, ascetic essence of what it means to be a nun.

    And the end result is this: good intentions notwithstanding, there’s something unnatural about it. The film is, indeed, very respectful about it at all – but that’s ultimately what the film says. (The final scene would seem to be senseless otherwise.) It’s all well and good to lead a ‘selfless’ life as a nun, but certain off-shoot extremes of the life (as related in the film) border on the idiotic. (Asking for permission for a drink of water in-between meals??? It fairly smacks of paternal envy.) Hepburn’s character enters the convent thinking that she will have her dream: to be of service to the world. Well, yes, to a point she’s allowed that. But she finds she must nevertheless toe the line at every turn. (At one point, even lying is involved – when she is requested to purposely fail her exams for the benefit of another nun! Thank God she has sense enough not to cave in to *that*!)

    One comes away from this film thinking that the life of a nun should be like any other life: a 9-to-5 job that you can leave behind you when you go home to your husband and family!

    That said, the film is very well made indeed. It’s extremely well-written and directed. It’s taut. Appropriately. And Franz Waxman’s haunting score is appropriately stately, if a bit scary. (I will always remember this film for having no music at all under-scoring the final scene. Most fitting.)

    And, through it all, there’s Hepburn. She really is a marvel here, delivering a rich, subtle performance that captures each shading of her character’s struggle to understand what kind of life it is that she is following. It’s fascinating watching her slowly realize that what she anticipated from her choice stands bold in diametric opposition to her. (What’s needed most in the film, perhaps, is a scene early on – in which Hepburn has private audience with the Mother Superior, who tells her: ‘OK, what’s going to happen here is all about total obedience. The operative word being ‘TOTAL’. In capital letters. Even when it may seem really weird to you. Are you ok with that?’)

    ‘The Nun’s Story’ is a film that makes you pay attention. It does not waste your time. It is a marvelous portrait of a puzzling life-choice. This is not a film I go back to. It had been many years before going back now. It’s an expert piece of cinema. But (though it’s no fault of anyone involved in the film) I see more of man than God in it.