Posted by: philosopherouge | September 2, 2007

The Nun’s Story (Zinnemann, 1959)

The Nun's Story

The only reason I rented this film was because it has been called Audrey Hepburn’s best performance. Quite frankly nuns frighten me, they always have. This is probably because my mother had frightening stories to tell from her high school experiences, and then I was subjected to similar torture in my own journey through the iron gates. My exposure to the sisters was far different than my mothers, as they no longer teach during my stay. They were more than elderly, and they sat outside their home covered in blankets growling and screaming at us in French if we dared move beyond the trees into their little territory. Honestly, a far cry from the obedient and quite nuns of this film.

For these reasons, among others, the Nun’s Story puzzled me greatly and I am glad Hepburn’s character was just as conflicted with her life as I was because I don’t think I would be able to bear it otherwise. As one of the characters says, it is an unnatural life. It’s a life of sacrifice to degrees that I cannot even begin to fathom. I all at once admire the people who go through with it, and recoil because I know I could never commit to something like this (my belief isn’t strong enough for one thing). The film, unlike other films I’ve seen set in convents does a great job in portraying the ritualistic side of becoming a nun, which in essence is the most important part. Obediance and detachment from the self are essential, and this is the source of Hepburn’s struggle as she cannot detach herself from her pride or memories. As the film jumps right into her going to the convent we have no sense of reason behind her decision, we get the faint idea she wants to go to the Congo but as her father is already a successful doctor one wonders if she couldn’t get there as a nurse. The strength of the film is on Hepburn’s performance, because these questions might linger too long if she didn’t show her struggle to succeed so painfully on her face. As dialogue is limited, she had to express a thousand worries with her expression and her eyes, and she succeeds valiantly.

The film itself is compelling, in spite of an uneven plot and some strange pacing. Again though, it’s because of Hepburn that we continue even in the difficult patches. She does give a spectacularly conflicted performance, and the film is worth watching for that alone. Most of my problems with the story come in the second half in Congo and in her return to Brussels. The failing of the Congo is in the introduction of Peter Finch as the doctor. He gives a great performance, but as he is one of the few characters who represents an alternate voice, they give the poor guy a lot of terrible dialogue to work through. He make a lot of it work, but some of it is cringe worthy. It’s not just a problem of dialogue though, but it quite honestly ruins the atmosphere and the pacing of the film. I also wish they had played up the ritualism of Hepburn’s work as a nurse to contrast it with her religious duties in terms of dedication. The return to Brussels up until the end is very weak, and while the tension is building constantly through the film it doesn’t build to a strong enough climax to make her decision more powerful. I like the final shot though, I’m happy they decided to leave it open ended.



  1. She was really good in this movie!

  2. If you’re up for more, uh, nunsense, there’s always Powell’s excellent Black Narcissus, accurately described by David Thomson as “that rare thing, an erotic English film about the fantasies of nuns.”

  3. Powell & Pressburger are probably my favourite filmmakers, so I’ve seen Black Narcissus. It’s more than a few bounds better than The Nun’s Story. That comment made me laugh, it’s a very accurate description. To complete my nun studies I’ll probably have to see Lilies of the Field and some italian Nunsploitation flicks.

  4. This is one of my mom’s favourite movies and I do believe I’m interested in seeing it now. Your review intrigues me, also, Audrey Hepburn is gorgeous.

  5. I think you may like it, but you are a strange one. It’s probably Hepburn’s best performance, and even without make-up, and being very tired/sick throughout the film she still looks great. A true beauty.

  6. Hey, if you are in film school there is a great contest on UTube for Valentines Day. The contest is to create a video for the holiday. Actually its two contests, one is to recall your great love and the second is to actually do an online video proposal called “Will You Marry Me?” Here’s the URL If you’re in film school you’ve got a leg up.

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