Fred Zinnemann (1907-1997) directed some of the iconic 1950s movies (From Here to Eternity, High Noon, A Hatful of Rain, Oklahoma!), as well as such lauded and honored later movies as “A Man for All Seasons,” “Julia,” “The Sundowners,” and “The Day of the Jackal.” Having started with documentary movies, Zinnemann’s movie often showed different settings and occupations in meticulous detail (the procedures in “The Day of the Jackal,” in particular) and showed very determined (some would call them stubborn) protagonists (Prewitt in “Eternity,” Thomas More in “Seasons,” Julia, mountain climbing in “Five Days One Summer,” the assassin and his hunter in “Jackal”).
Zinnemann won two Oscars and was nominated for six others. He also won four “best director” New York Film Critics Awards, and directed 19 different actors in Oscar-nominated performance (8 of whom won the award). Although one could not say he was obscure or unhonored, he tends to be forgotten by those canonizing “auteurs.” Perhaps he was too tasteful and too unobtrusive at his craft to get his due. Or his movies were too successful at the box office.
When he obtained the rights to Kathryn Hulme’s best-selling The Nun’s Story, there was no enthusiasm among Hollywood studios to finance a movie about the difficulties a Belgian nun had with her vocation(s). At least there was no enthusiasm until Audrey Hepburn signed on to play Sister Luc. Then there was something of a bidding war, which was won by Warner Brothers. The studio was rewarded with its highest-grossing picture of 1959, one that was nominated for eight Oscars (in the year in which the bad but big “Ben Hur” swept eleven).
Most Hollywood movies featuring nuns sentimentalize them. Zinnemann’s movie is a very serious portrayal of one who is a great nurse and a nun who has no difficulties with her vows of chastity and poverty, but great difficulties with humility (the sin of pride). She is smart and accomplished and beloved by her patients. Her vocation as a nurse is unquestionable, but she has a very strong will that the order (claiming it to be “God’s will”) attempts to stamp out. As a nurse, she is recurrently unwilling to stop what she is doing just because bells ring.
Also, once she finally gets to the Belgian colony of the Congo (filmed in what was still the French colony of the Congo), she becomes the indispensable assistant of a physician (Peter Finch) with a vocation of medicine similar to his. She clearly falls in love with him and he with her, though she seems to block awareness of this (let alone any acknowledgmen
She has to accompany a VIP back to Belgium and with World War II about to begin, is unable to return to Africa. After she learns that her beloved father (an eminent surgeon who first trained her) has been killed as he was trying to help wounded and was strafed by a Nazi plane, she is unable to maintain the neutrality that her order insists upon (for its own convenience and ability to persist). She realizes that she will not ever be able to annihilate her own judgment of priorities and happily submit to orders.
For more than two hours, covering about a decade, she struggles mightily to be a good nun. The movie is in no rush as it shows the ceremonies and the daily grind of her career. Because of the intensity of Audrey Hepburn’s performance (widely regarded as her greatest one), this unfolding is not boring. Peter Finch’s surgeon who sees much that Sister Luc has suppressed from consciousness injects the equivalent of a shot of adrenaline 3/5ths of the way through. There are also subtle (unstereotypical) performances by Sister Luc’s superiors (elders in the order), including Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft, Mildred Dunnock, and Beatrice Straight). There are only two whom I regard as “twisted sisters.” (Ruth White’s Mother Marcella and Margaret Phillips’s Sister Pauline). To liven things up, there is Colleen Dewhurst as a schizophrenic who believes she is the Archangel Gabriel and provides an occasion for Sister Luc to exercise her own judgment that shows it is sometimes flawed. Plus Dean Jagger as her father (a very sympathetic character who supports his prized daughter doing what she thinks she wants to do rather than what he thinks she should do). And there is a long-bearded Stephen Murray as Father André (the pictures of God have long beards, so the Congolese expect them of their priests).
In addition to an outstanding cast, the movie had location shooting in Belgium and Africa by Franz Planer (whose filming of Audrey Hepburn was nominated for Oscars in “Roman Holiday, “The Nun’s Story,” and “The Children’s Hours” and won Golden Globes for shooting “Champion,” Cyrano de Bergerac,” and “Death of a Salesman”; he also shot Hepburn in “Unforgiven” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s, plus such other memorable-looking films as “Letter from an Unknown Woman” and “The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T”). Franz Waxman (who received one of eleven Oscar nominations for it) supplied an unsubtle but not ineffective musical score.
The book was adapted by Robert Anderson, who also was responsible for the screenplay of Robert Wise’s “The Sand Pebbles” (1966), and whose own play “I Never Sang for My Father” provided unforgettable roles for Gene Hackman and Melvyn Douglas in 1970.
The movie follows Gabrielle van der Mal from the day she goes into the convent until the door springs open to let her return to the world. There is nothing examining how she came to think that she should be a nun (or choosing so infantilizing an order as the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary, the order the real-life model entered in Ghent) and no indication of what happened after she turned the corner at the end of the alley when she walked out in street clothes.
Hepburn showed she could be mesmerizing without Givenchy couture (and with no visible coiffure). As I frequently note, great screen acting is done mostly with the eyes, and “The Nun’s Story” leaves no doubt that Hepburn was a great screen actress, not just a charming, elfin star. Even her dazzling smile is held down or held back.
The movie accepts the colonial order in Africa (that was about to end) the way the order accepts Nazi rule of Belgium. That and the stately pace keep me from rating the movie 5-star, though Audrey Hepburn’s performance certainly is that.
©2018, Stephen O. Murray