Challenging, controversial, but impossible to dismiss, The Nun’s Story stars Audrey Hepburn as a young woman named Gabrielle van der Mal who enters convent life with high hopes and ideals, but finds the disappointments and stumbling-blocks that accompany her vows of poverty, chastity and (especially) obedience a potentially insurmountable obstacle.
Directed by Fred Zinnemann (A Man for All Seasons) from Kathryn Hulme’s novel (partly based on the experiences of a real-life ex-nun), 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.
There’s no effort to depict all nuns as warped or frustrated; there are certainly bad apples, but also warm, sympathetic, apparently well-adjusted human beings. One of the more insidious moments involves a twisted mother superior suggesting that Sr. Luke (Gabby’s name in religion) display her humility by deliberately failing a nursing exam — but another superior later confirms that this advice was wrong-headed.
First sent to work with mental patients in Belgium before being assigned to the Congo where she hopes to work with natives, Sr. Luke struggles with the demands of obedience. Why should she cut off a potentially salutary conversation with a patient at the sound of some bell ringing? Yet after suffering a wrenching personal tragedy, she also struggles with hate and unforgiveness. Is the Christian ideal itself called into question? Or is this simply the ugly side of life in this fallen world?
Sr. Luke approaches her vocation with all-or-nothing commitment. That’s a worthy ideal, yet in the end none of us can really give our all. Nothing, on the other hand, is within our power.
What, then, are we to make of Sr. Luke’s crisis? Who or what has failed? Is it the fault of the Rule itself, or of the other sisters? Or could Sr. Luke herself be on some level responsible for her own unhappiness? Right up to the devastating final shot, which plays out in silence, the film refuses to take sides. Is it a triumph or a tragedy? Alas, it is something that happens.
Note: Newly available for the first time on DVD, The Nun’s Story is available either singly or as part of the “Films of Faith” box set, which also includes The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima and The Shoes of the Fisherman.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.