Tuesday, May 22, 2012

1959 - The Nun's Story

It's hard to believe that it's already tech week for The Taming of the Shrew and that we open in three days. If you're in the New York area in the next three weeks, be sure to pop along and say hi.

We now take a look at another Best Picture contender from 1959...

The Nun's Story
Fred Zinneman
Robert Anderson
(based on the novel by Kathryn Hulme)
Audrey Hepburn, Peter Finch, Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft, Dean Jagger, Mildred Dunnock, Beatrice Straight
Academy Awards:
8 nominations
0 wins

The Nun's Story, as its title suggests, is the story of a nun. Gabrielle (Hepburn) is a stubborn young woman who, for some reason, chooses to enter a Belgian convent with hopes of serving as a nurse in the Congo. She endures the brutal identity-stripping training, struggling to keep up with what is expected of her, but thrives during science class as she learns all about tropical diseases. Despite topping the class, Sister Luke, as she is now known, fails to truly embrace a test of humility and is therefore deprived of her desire to be sent to the Congo. Instead, she is sent to assist at a mental hospital. Eventually, however, after proving herself, she is finally sent to the Congo where she is assigned to work alongside Dr. Fortunati (Finch). Her doubts continue to haunt her, though, especially as non-believer Fortunati challenges almost everything she has been taught.

It is perhaps unintentional, but there is a somewhat ominous feeling that pervades the first act of The Nun's Story. One by one, the rules of the convent are laid out and each one seems more cult-like than the last - give up all your possessions that elicit memories of your past, don't talk to the other nuns about anything but official business, make daily confessions about your unworthiness, rat out your fellow nuns when they commit even minor offences. It's like a sorority hazing. The most unsettling part is that it is considered strength to be able to obey all these rules.

The pace is relatively swift as Gabrielle makes her way through the various stages of becoming a nun, and moves from assignment to assignment. Then about halfway into the film, it settles down a little, made all the more watchable due to an affable performance by Peter Finch (pictured) who injects some life into an otherwise sombre picture. In fact, it all gets rather more fascinating at this point as Fortunati's presence affects Sister Luke in challenging and confusing ways.

If you're unfamiliar with this story, I recommend not watching the original trailer (or reading the following paragraph, for that matter). Assuming the viewer's familiarity with the source material, the trailer begins with the final scene from the movie, that of Gabrielle giving up her habit. After struggling for so long with the faith, the final straw seems to be the convent's order to remain neutral as World War II begins, something that Gabrielle finds excruciatingly difficult given her father was just killed by Nazis occupying Belgium. She admits that she's simply not cut out for the life of a nun, which seems to reaffirm that unsettling idea that one needs to be strong to give up one's past life and become a nun. However, as she literally hangs up her habit and walks out the door, there is a clear sense of Gabrielle achieving some semblance of freedom. To me, she proves her strength here by maintaining her identity and thinking for herself. It is a powerful and effective final moment.

The cast of The Nun's Story contains no less than five Oscar winners - Audrey Hepburn, of course, who won a few years earlier for Roman Holiday and was nominated again here; the excellent and natural Peter Finch, along with Beatrice Straight, who both won for Network; Peggy Ashcroft, a Supporting Actress winner for A Passage to India; and Dean Jagger, who had already won for Twelve O'Clock High. Also featured is perhaps the cutest blue-faced monkey I've ever seen.

1 comment:

  1. I was taught by nuns my first eight years of school. I never could figure out what makes them tick. I lived on the same block as the school and convent, and sang in the school choir. To my embarrassment whenever I was playing street ball when they went out for their evening walks, they’d call me over to sing a couple of songs for them. This didn’t cut any ice in the classroom however, or stop me from getting a shot to the solar plexus if I didn’t know the answer to a question. I think there was definitely some bi-polar stuff involved there. I’m sure I’m remembering the unfortunate incidents at the expense of many good ones. I guess I have a soft spot for the religious movies, and I thoroughly enjoyed re-watching The Nun’s Story for the first time in many years.

    There wasn’t much of a back story offered. Gabrielle van der Mal's motivations for joining the order were vague at best. There was something of a failed romance mentioned. Hepburn was splendid, giving us one of her best performances. Finch was excellent as well. Beside the Academy Award winners , there were nominees Dame Edith Evans and Mildred Dunnock as well as a young Colleen Dewhurst in her first feature film as a violent, delusional mental patient.

    Fred Zinneman was a classy director, and had a sure hand with this one. There was mention of his withholding the music score at the dramatic conclusion – a very nice touch. I'd have to say the The Nun's Story was one of three nominated films that I'd keep on the list.