Thursday, January 6, 2011

Review – The Nun’s Story

January 6, 2011

The Nun’s Story – US, 1959

Towards the beginning of Fred Zinnemann’s The Nun’s Story, an older nun explains to a group of young ladies training to be nuns that “the perfect nun is completely obedient to God.” This sounds logical, yet how does one accomplish this exactly? In a world without Biblical miracles, just how does one know the wishes of a deity? Apparently, one starts by obeying several time-honored rules. Here are a few of them. Rule #1: A nun must observe silence. This silence is referred to as “interior silence,” and observing it is said to make it possible for a nun to more easily conduct an ongoing conversation with God. If a nun wishes to speak, she must signal first and wait for a superior to give her permission. Rule #2: A nun must be detached from her previous life. She must be free of belongings and memories. She must even let go of her own name. Rule #3: A nun must practice true humility and let go of any semblance of pride that remains inside her. To help in this process, a woman wishing to be a nun must confess her imperfections, and if another woman knows of any additional faults, she must “proclaim” them in front of everyone. There are other rules that I won’t mention. However, I will say that I now understand why I rarely saw the hands of the nuns that ran my middle school. It’s part of the way nuns practice humility.

The Nun’s Story begins with a scene that is both heartbreaking and uplifting, as scores of families say good-bye to their young daughters just before they enter the convent to begin their training. Parents are proud, yet sad; the women are determined, yet many have mixed emotions and cannot help looking back at their parents one last time before the doors are closed behind them. The main character in the film is Gabrielle van der Mal (Audrey Hepburn), a young woman who is trained in medicine and dreams of practicing it in the Congo. There is a paradox in the fact that once she becomes a nun, she cannot make this wish known – she can only hope that she is selected to go to work at the hospital her church runs there. In other words, whether she goes or not is in the hands of a higher power – her superiors – and they are not too interested in doing anything that might boost her pride.

Gabrielle, later referred to as Sister Luke, is sent to work at a mental institution in Brussels, where she encounters a patient not so lovingly referred to as “Archangel Gabriel.” There’s a reason for this, as Gabrielle soon discovers after going against the advice of her superiors. Too much pride and disobedience, they proclaim. Eventually, Gabrielle’s dreams come true, and she is sent to the Congo, although not quite to the place she had hoped to go to. Again, she must learn to deal with disappointment. Gabrielle adjusts, works hard, and makes the hospital more efficient. She just forgets to let her superior know about it. She’s loved by all she comes in contact with, perhaps even by the veteran doctor that she works with. That doctor, Dr. Fortunati (Peter Finch), will later call her a “worldly nun”; however, in his opinion, she can never be “their kind of nun.” He may be right.

One of the things that I liked about The Nun’s Story is that it is not about a character having a crisis in faith, for Gabrielle’s belief in God is never threatened. The question is whether she is right for the sisterhood, whether she can live within their system. Gabrielle’s father (Dean Jagger) has doubts from the very beginning, and because he knows his daughter best, I suspect many viewers will have the same doubts. He just can’t see her being obedient to bells. And yet it is not the bells that Gabrielle has difficulty with. It’s the neutrality, the lack of emotion with which she is supposed to walk around with. And then there are the rumblings of war, and when it finally comes, the church’s response to it may be too much for her to handle.

For those people like me who are somewhat ignorant about the inner workings of the church, The Nun’s Story will fascinate, as well as confuse. Gabrielle’s training is truly eye-opening. At times, it appears harsh and unkind; at others, it is simply astonishing to behold. Like Gabrielle, I too found myself wondering why a woman with such knowledge about tropical diseases would not immediately be sent to help people. There is an answer, but it’s not an easy one to accept. In addition, it’s possible that some contemporary viewers will see the film as slightly condemning the church for its perceived inaction during the Second World War; however, I don’t think the film is doing this. The pursuit of spiritual salvation has often unintentionally conflicted with current events, regardless of the religion being practiced. I suppose this is even truer of religions that emphasize a form of detachment or personal achievement.

The Nun’s Story remains a fascinating film, and Audrey Hepburn, appearing without make up and hiding much of her hair, gives an astonishing performance. Some have even called it her greatest. The film’s final scene may be one of the most powerful scenes in the history of film. If there is a fault, it is the character of Dr. Fortunati, who is simply too abrasive and insensitive for me to believe that Gabrielle is torn in her feelings for him. There are also a couple leaps in time that could have been handled better. Still, The Nun’s Story is one of those rare films that moves you and packs a punch. It’s quite unforgettable. (on DVD)

4 stars

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