Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Forty-Seven


#47 — The Nun’s Story (Fred Zinnemann, 1959)
Given the potential rich complexity of the subject, it’s somewhat surprising that matters of faith aren’t fodder for feature films more often. The operative term in the above sentence is “somewhat,” as there are plenty of explanations at the ready, including the pesky inability to present faith as any other than an unfettered positive, a state reached easily and delivering nothing but satiating bliss, without provoking the ire of the incongruously thin-skinned pious. Barely any modern movie with even a hint of Christian overtones comes out without an overt attempt by the studio to court the favor of religious leaders, hopefully getting out ahead of any controversy. It was even more the case in the nineteen-fifties, both because it was a less permissive time for entertainment content, but more due to the pronounced influence of the Catholic League, an organization that could devastate the earning potential of a film by condemning it, or so it was believed. Fred Zinnemann’s The Nun’s Story stands as compelling evidence that prioritizing artistry over fealty to outside entities is worth the risk.

Based on a 1956 novel by Kathryn Hulme, which was inspired by the life of one of Hulme’s acquaintances, The Nun’s Story focuses on Sister Luke, a young nun played by Audrey Hepburn. Sister Luke is a Belgian nun trained as a nurse, taking up the vocation with the express hope of being stationed in the Congo. She struggles at times to fulfill the demands of her duty and is especially petulant when things don’t proceed exactly as she’d hoped (being stationed at a mental hospital, eventually making her way to the Congo only to discover that she’ll be provided service to the privileged occupiers instead of the needier native citizenry). In depicting Sister Luke’s rocky progression the film essentially makes the argument–which shouldn’t be all that controversial, though it is–that faith is difficult. The lives of those who endeavor to serve the church have not stumbled into a cushy profession, but have instead chosen a path that will leave them forever tested, whether by vanity that fuels disappointment or even that ruggedly attractive doctor (Peter Finch) whose sardonic appraisals of the battered world have a certain appeal. Acknowledging the messy reality should make the perseverance of those who do prosper in the role all the more impressive.

Zinnemann treats the journey of Sister Luke with the utmost care, never condescending to her while presenting the enticements of the secular world with an appropriate frankness. As it becomes increasingly clear that the rigors of life in a habit may not be a good match for Sister Luke, Zinnemann calibrates his tone to eschew judgment. There is no rueful lament nor heathen’s gloating. There is only the empathy of one flawed human being towards another, a fair-hearted quest to understand. Hepburn, very much still in the midst of her run of vivid ingenues (Funny Face and Love in the Afternoon were both two years earlier and Breakfast at Tiffany’s was two years later), brings a marvelous maturity and gravity to her performance. She commands the screen without relying on her natural charm, opting to focus on the truth and depth of her characterization. The equal commitment to restraint of both director and star comes together in a closing scene of great dignity and grace, achieved through a plain-faced simplicity that adheres to the ideal modesty of the ecumenical calling as beautifully as anything else in the film. Committing to the artistic power of that moment, that means of depicting the end of the story, is its own grand expression of faith.

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