A Woman at War With Herself: The Nun’s Story (1959)

When Sister Celluloid announced this blogathon, I did not have a moment’s hesitation about choosing the 1959 film The Nun’s Story as my topic. We tend to automatically think of Audrey Hepburn as chic, glamorous, and almost always in a romantic story. It could seem at first glance a very odd bit of miscasting but to my mind her role as Sister Luke is her finest acting achievement.

But it’s not just because Hepburn played against type that makes this an exceptional film. It begins and ends with Hepburn’s complex performance as a complex woman.

The story centers on a young Belgian named Gabrielle Van Der Mal (Hepburn), later Sister Luke, the daughter of a doctor who enters a convent so she can serve as a nurse in the Congo. Her father warns her as she enters the convent that he can see her as chaste and poor, but not obedient. Gabrielle is certain she is making the correct choice for her life.

However, in the convent she finds the strict adherence to not only obedience, but of complete surrender of self to the religious life much more difficult than she ever imagined. She is not even allowed to keep a pen that her father gave her. She is a brilliant student, but is not permitted to feel or show pride in her work. Immediately, she finds her determination to succeed as a nun and a nurse at war with each other. This internal war never ceases for her entire career as a nun.

Time and again, she is disappointed in her ambitions. She is not sent to the Congo at first, but to a mental institution. When she finally is sent to the Congo, she is bitterly disappointed to be assigned to the white patients instead of the natives.

Still, she gains the respect of her sister nuns, her patients, and the hospital’s surgeon Dr. Fortunati (Peter Finch). She is diagnosed with tuberculosis. Determined to keep her as his surgical assistant, the doctor insists she convalesce there instead of returning to Belgium. Soon after, however, she is sent home anyway. Her dream of returning becomes more and more elusive as Europe marches towards World War II.

As the Nazis take over Belgium, the nuns are instructed to remain completely neutral about the war and go on with their work as if nothing is happening. When she experiences personal tragedy, Sister Luke can no longer pretend that she has relinquished her past relationships. She finally asks permission to leave the convent to join the underground against the Nazis.

There aren’t too many movies that deal so directly with the internal lives of women, never mind nuns. While I myself am not Catholic (though, through odd circumstances, I did attend a convent school briefly when I was a child) I feel a great deal of empathy for Sister Luke’s struggle. One can feel sad that she can’t succeed as a nun while at the same time cheer her inability to erase herself and disappear into the habit completely. There’s a hint of romantic feelings between Sister Luke and Dr. Fotunati, but it’s quite refreshing to see the struggle a nun is having isn’t necessarily repressed sexuality.

Reportedly, The Nun’s Story was Hepburn’s favorite role, which is not difficult to believe. Actresses have for decades (and to this day) fought for strong, complex characters to play. Here, Hepburn had the opportunity to play a wide range of nuances with this character, and she took total advantage it.

I must mention the direction by Fred Zinnemann, which is also excellent. I never tire of the final scene of the film, where Sister Luke is directed to a room to remove her habit and leave the convent. In almost total silence, the camera watches her shed this persona (it’s surprising to realize that the character has aged, she’s so swallowed up by her habit). The camera stays on her as she walks up the alley and disappears as she turns into the street.

It’s one of the few endings of a film where I want desperately to follow the character into the next phase of her life.

This post is part of the Audrey at 90: The Salute to Audrey Hepburn Blogathon, hosted by Sister Celluloid. Read the rest of the entries in this event HERE!



22 thoughts on “A Woman at War With Herself: The Nun’s Story (1959)

  1. I think this is Audrey’s very best performance. It’s such a moving film. I too always want the film to last longer. I hold out hope that she goes back to work with Fortunati at the end, and maybe they develop their relationship further.

    1. I believe Hepburn befriended the ex-nun the character is based on. So part of her future life was meeting and befriending Hepburn! So cool.

  2. It was a pleasure to read your insights into the character and the film. Audrey brought so much to all of her film roles, and the beautifully written and directed role of Sister Luke must have been a dream come true for an actress of such sensitivity and ability.

  3. What a wonderfully written article! I have unfortunately not had the chance to see this yet. From the photos and the description of the story, I can easily see why Audrey had a strong affection for this role, though. 😊

  4. This is my favorite Audrey film as well. I first saw it when it came out, and I was only 11 years old. It so captivated me that I have never missed an opportunity to see it again. Her performance is riveting from beginning to end, and she grows the character beautifully. When you consider that only a couple of years later she did Breakfast at Tiffany’s in a VERY different role, you realize that for someone with no formal training as an actor, she was truly astonishingly good with more range than she is ever given credit for.

  5. Very good review! I’ve been on a nun-film binge for the past year and a half and yet I continually avoid watching this film…and I’m not sure why considering Hepburn is a fave, as is Zinnemann films…so you’ve just convinced me to watch it this week. Aren’t the films that leave you thinking about the future life of the main character the best kind of films?

  6. It’s so easy for people to overlook this wonderful movie just from the title– they probably expect sentimentality or religious propaganda, but it’s one of the best character studies ever put out by Hollywood. It’s also the perfect rebuttal to those who think Audrey Hepburn could not act. Her performance is so internal and quiet here– no fashions or melodramatic moments whatsoever.

  7. The Nun’s Story was an unforgettable experience for me. I need to rewatch. I loved your thoughtful review. Re: Hepburn’s faultless acting. It was not left to chance. She worked tirelessly and left film scripts covered in copious notes for each line. She was highly disciplined – no wonder directors loved her. Recently BBC radio4 replayed a dramatization based on the real Sister Luke and how her book was written. She moved to California and I read she nursed Hepburn back to health after she fell off a horse in a film. They became life-long friends I believe.
    BBC Radio 4 Extra – Zoe Fairbairns – The Belgian Nurse

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