To say Fred Zinnemann’s The Nun’s Story is unusual is not to imply it is difficult or controversial. It is squarely in the Hollywood narrative tradition and with the exception of some documentary style footage, it is not remotely experimental. In its exploration of a woman’s consciousness, however, its unrelenting confrontation with the difficulties in moral choice, above all, in its steady centering on the complex motivations of character at the expense of forward movement, the film confounds mainstream expectations, even while delivering the emotional rewards of standard storytelling.
Audrey Hepburn stars as Sister Luke, aka Gabrielle van der Maal, the daughter of an eminent Belgian surgeon who enters an order of nursing nuns to train for what she hopes will be a chance to work in the Congo. The drama is almost purely internal, focusing on her efforts to acquire the spiritual innocence that her worldly, rebellious nature makes impossible. It is typical of the film’s audacity that despite Hepburn’s youthful beauty, she wears a nun’s habit for most of the film, so that in distant shots, you can barely distinguish the star from the extras. That submersion of individuality in the group is, of course, part of what the film is about, but it is a tribute to Zinnemann’s integrity that he treats the character, Hepburn and the subject with the dignified reticence they deserve.
Equally unusual is the lack of romantic entanglement. Sister Luke spends a good deal of time with Dr. Fortunati (Peter Finch) in the Congo, but there is never a hint of an involvement or even an attraction between them. Their relationship is entirely professional, built on mutual respect, even if the secular Dr. Fortunati recognizes that Sister Luke is not suited to being a nun. (The understatement of their farewell—or lack of one—when Sister Luke leaves the Congo, quietly captures the range of complex feelings between them, through quick, awkward gestures and silences.)
There is also plenty of Hollywood hype. The score by Franz Waxman thunderously and unnecessarily underlines emotional outbursts. A few overwrought scenes, such as Sister Luke’s violent encounter with an inmate in a mental institution, seem to be belong in another film. And the scenes in the Congo, while beautifully photographed and lingered on with obvious fascination and affection, cannot escape the patronizing “Happy Native” kind of racism endemic to Hollywood’s view of alien societies. The depiction is especially distasteful in light of the brutal realities of Belgium’s exploitation of the Congo.
And so, for all its sophisticated, understated film making and good intentions, The Nun’s Story is very far from being a masterpiece. The episodic story lurches from one sequence to another, and the quasi-documentary approach threatens to break down into little more than a tourist’s snapshots. But in its best moments, The Nun’s Story is truly fine, a heart-rending testament to the talents and commitment of all involved to a serious examination of the demands of conscience.