January 13, 2012

The Nun's Story (film)

1959 film. Directed by Fred Zinnemann. Written by Robert Anderson. Based on the novel by Kathryn Hulme.

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Nuns are a fascinating breed of individual. Dedicating themselves to absolute obedience and piety in the face of their god, they live quiet yet rigorous lives where they flow through their services in a clockwork fashion of near anonymity. It's an unusual life. As both the book and film state, it's unnatural as it goes against human impulses and will in the face of absolute devotion. It's not a life for everyone.

Which brings us to Sister Luke (Audrey Hepburn), formerly Gabrielle van der Mal, a young Belgian woman who entered the convent to escape a failed engagement and, hopefully, to become a nurse in the Congo missionaries. It's a choice she's made peace with and most of her family, while a bit hesitant, is strongly supportive as she enters the convent with high hopes. As with the book, the film is a window into this world as we see the rituals, the initiations and mental tests, the gradual training that turn women into nuns. Personal bonds are frowned upon, culminating when Luke and another sister are reprimanded for seeking each other's console, the last incident of which is the other woman deciding to leave the sisterhood. Like any institution, there is a weeding out process, but it's never done with malice, just an odd sense of practical inevitability. "You can lie to your sisters, but you can never lie to god or to yourself." If people stay, they flourish and contribute. If they leave, the order moves on.

This isn't a film about faith or god, it's about the people who have faith and the institution they've organized around it. It's an old order, one that's built its rules and foundations over centuries. The film captures this sense in its quiet grace and dignity, but also captures the sadness and sacrifice, and even acknowledges the fallibility of a human run organization as different convents have slightly different ways of doing things. One Reverend Mother asks Sister Luke to fail an exam just to keep a struggling sister from feeling bad for not doing as well. Another says that was the wrong request to make as that would have deprived society of Luke's skills as a nurse. It's instances like these, or others where she's told to feel guilt and regret over actions that she doesn't see as wrong, that start to eat at her and make her question the life she's chosen for herself. It's only in giving herself to this organization that she finds her independence.

Audrey Hepburn is a legend for a reason, and she continues to demonstrate it here. She perfectly balances the fragility and strength of Sister Luke as she goes through the training, bounces from house to house, becomes a skilled nurse in bloody surgeries, is violently assaulted, and arrives in the Congo so fiercely dedicated to help, only to spend half her time there recovering from tuberculosis. All of the other nuns are portrayed by fantastic character actors - Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft, Beatrice Straight, Patricia Collinge, Rosalie Crutchley, the list goes on - but they float by, disappearing and reappearing, and we never really know who these characters are beyond what little we can make of their actions and personalities in the moment. That's not a complaint, merely the truth of being a nun.

Zinneman's direction of this film is meticulous, intelligent, and sweepingly intimate as he keeps the various chapters of Sister Luke's life flowing in and out of one another. Religion is a huge part of the picture, but he never sentimentalizes it, merely treating it as an aspect of the people involved. We see them pray, recite, and prostrate themselves before crosses, but in a way that's merely witnessing them in their chosen practice, without either support or judgment. Its very analytical in a way, stepping back to show us the bare facts of this life, then pushing in on Sister Luke as we see the meaning and lessons and questions she takes from each event. Even when Sister Luke starts to break away and challenge the views around her, it doesn't treat them judgmentally, nor does she. It's merely a lifestyle that's increasingly at odds with her individual life. And there's a beautiful framing device of her hair as it's cut before disappearing beneath the habit of a full fledged sister, where it remains unseen for around 90 minutes or so until that second skin is peeled away and the changed color of the hair finally hits us with how many years have passed in Sister Luke's life.

There's other great touches, like a sudden murder, the serenely horrific treatment of screaming mental patients, a climactic confessional, the meetings with Sister Luke's father (the steady Dean Jagger), recognition of Sister Luke's genuine skills and will being dismissed as pride, a visit to a genuine leper village, Peter Finch as a brusque doctor who challenges Sister Luke to rise above her own imposed limitations, the gradual onset of WWII through explosions and gunfire that suddenly aren't so distant, the brief motif of a gold pen, or the final moment, equally haunting and inspiring, as Gabrielle sets out to the next unwritten chapter of her life.

This is a bit rambly, but that's because it's hard to find something to say when everything is so damn well made. The Nun's story was nominated for eight Academy Awards back in the day, and it deserved every single one of them. With they exception of a few moments in the Congo where it's a little too "look at these savage natives, thank goodness we white folk made their lives so much better", I'd go so far as to call it a perfect film. Y'know what, no, I'll go ahead and call it perfect as those moments, while questionable, have the same honest ring as questionable moments of convent life, so they may very well have been intentional as a bit of commentary. I don't know.

This film works. It's a masterpiece. It needs to be seen. Seriously, go see it now. Go. Yes, you. Watch it!

1 comment:

Angie Tusa said...

Yes, sir!

Honestly, as someone who was raised Catholic I always have a fascination with this kind of stuff anyway, so if I had known about it previously I probably would have hunted it down myself. Now I definitely will.