The Nun's Story (USA 1959)

Director: Fred Zinnemann

Starring: Audrey Hepburn, Peter Finch, Edith Evans, Dean Jagger, Peggy Ashcroft, Colleen Dewhurst

Screenplay: Robert Anderson

Novel: Kathryn Hulme

Cinematography: Franz Planer

Music: Franz Waxman

Bit Part: Lionel Jeffries

Fact: Audrey's nephew Miguel Ferrer played slimy yuppie 'exec' Bob Morton in Robocop.

In One Word: Belgian girl struggles with the demands of her religious vows.


Fred Zinnemann made a number of worthy if occasionally dull films which he hoped would make the world a better place. Zinnemann heroes have to make tough decisions based on personal morality and have to live with the subsequent fallout created by their decisions. The Nun's Story is no exception. Hepburn plays Gabriel Van der Mal, a Belgian girl who always dreamed of becoming a nun. She joins an active rather than contemplative order so that she can continue with her other dream of being a nurse and working in the colonies.

After a long and an arduous time training (both in spiritual and medical matters) at the convent, Sister Luke (as she has been re-christened) is asked to fail a medical exam in order to prove her humility.

Sister Luke refuses to follow orders (believing it, rightly, to be both a betrayal of the talents given to her by her parents and by God, and also just a bastard of a test) and is sent to work in a Brussels' psychiatric home rather than her 'dream' posting of working in the Belgian Congo.

Sister Luke endures a horrible spell at the asylum and is beaten up for her troubles by a violent inmate known as Archangel Gabriel (Dewhurst), but is sent to the Congo for doing her penance and being such a good girl.

Here she does lots of worthy things and is almost happy for a while, but instead of staying with the Congolese, she is sent to work in a hospital for white Europeans and becomes depressed again.

At the hospital, Doctor Fortunati (Finch) recognises that Sister Luke's inner struggle comes from her repressed belief that many of her holy orders are petty and stifling and that there is an irreconcilable clash between her secular values and those imposed upon her by the Church.

Now (this being a Hollywood film) you'd expect there to be a sexual frisson between the two, but if it's there's any it's hardly discernible and it's only coming from Finchy. Sister Luke is more concerned with religious and (eventually) political struggles. After seeing a fellow nun clubbed to death by a hospital orderly and then contracting TB, she is sent back to war-time Belgium.

The murder of her father and the need to take sides against the occupying Nazis, force Sister Luke into making a momentous decision and the film ends on deliberately downbeat note (which you'll have to watch). Zinnemann fought long and hard with studio bosses in order to ensure that this final scene would be devoid of music. He wanted the audience to be left to make up their minds regarding the appropriateness of Sister Luke's decision.

A strange and somewhat dour film to come from a Hollywood studio, The Nun's Story is nowhere near as pretentious as Black Narcissus - but not as good, either.

This is Hepburn's best performance and although Zinnemann foregoes the usual dramatic flourishes, there are a number of imaginative visual compositions throughout the film in what is obviously a work of faith and devotion.

There's no show off acting, no romance, and the film often moves at a funereal pace, but there's a certain indefinable quality which...I can't define. Obviously. Hence 'indefinable'.

The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, but lost out in every category - a pity as The Nun's Story is all but forgotten now.