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Film / The Nun's Story

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The Nun's Story is a 1959 film directed by Fred Zinnemann, starring Audrey Hepburn in the role she was born to play: a Belgian nun.

The film opens in 1930 with Gabrielle van der Mal (Hepburn), the daughter of a distinguished Belgian surgeon, leaving the secular world behind and joining a convent in Bruges, where she takes the nun's name of "Sister Luke." Gabrielle/Luke goes through her postulancy and novitiate, often struggling with the demands of spiritual life. After a stint in a Belgian mental hospital she is sent to the Belgian Congo, where she serves as a nurse alongside handsome, cynical Dr. Fortunati (Peter Finch). Sister Luke's dedication to nursing and her pride in her skills gradually grows into a major conflict with her life as a nun, which demands dedication to the spiritual above all else. This conflict grows even starker when Sister Luke returns to Belgium just in time for Those Wacky Nazis to take the place over in 1940.

Adapted from the novel of the same name by Kathryn Hulme, this movie scored eight Academy Award nominations, although Ben-Hur won most of the trophies. Hepburn lost Best Actress to Simone Signoret for Room at the Top.


  • Artistic License – History: A nun reports that the Maginot Line has fallen, and then later reports that Belgium has surrendered. In fact, Belgium surrendered before the Maginot Line was evacuated as part of the last-ditch defense of southern France.
  • At the Crossroads: The very last shot of the movie. Gabrielle walks out of the convent forever, in a shot that is filmed throughout from a camera inside the convent. She pauses at the intersection at the end of the block, turns right, and walks out of frame, off to join La Résistance. The End.
  • Based on a True Story: Based on the life of Marie Louise Habets, although some liberties were taken, starting with the protagonist's name.
  • Bedlam House: The insane asylum where Sister Luke is sent to work. The most disturbed patients are confined in baths where they beat their feet against the tubs and scream. One patient who is locked in a cell tricks Sister Gabrielle into entering the cell by herself, and then tries to kill her.
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality: The nuns act this way sometimes. When another nun who is not as good of a nursing student denounces Sister Luke for being too proud, the mother superior tells Sister Luke to fail her nursing boards on purpose as a show of humility. (They can only send X number of qualified sisters to their African mission, and the nun who's not quite as good has always wanted to go; this is her last chance.) When Sister Luke can't bring herself to tank the examination and instead passes with flying colors, she's punished with an assignment in an insane asylum instead of a posting to the Congo (although in the book it's clear that her exemplary conduct there particularly when Sr. Marie is murdered is what earns her the Congo mission at last.)
  • Book Ends: The film opens with Gabrielle leaving her things behind at home, entering the convent, and putting on the dress of a postulant nun. It ends with Gabrielle taking off her nun's habit, putting on civilian clothes, and leaving the convent.
  • But Now I Must Go: After over a decade as a nun, Gabrielle quits, feeling that she is incapable of putting her spiritual life — in particular, the rule of obedience — above her dedication to nursing and her patients.
  • Clock King: Subverted. Gabrielle/Sister Luke frequently resists the strict schedules that govern the convents she lives in. To nuns, the bell must be respected as the voice of God calling them to prayers, meals, etc. Sister Luke points out the conflict between being a good nun and being a healer, as the bell often stops a nursing sister from caring for or counseling patients. You also have to make split-second decisions and can't wait for permission in a crisis.
  • The Film of the Book: The Nun's Story by Katharine Hulme.
  • Hollywood Nuns: The nuns in this film are the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary, and they also fit this exactly, wearing the "penguin suit" habits, right down to the awesomely wise Mother Superior played by Dame Edith Evans. This film is another candidate for this trope's Trope Codifier, alongside The Song of Bernadette and The Sound of Music.
  • Important Haircut: Sister Luke has her long, luxuriant brown hair cut off as she's Taking the Veil.
  • Insane Equals Violent: The woman in the asylum who thinks she's the archangel Gabriel attacks Sister Luke. In the book, Sr. Luke comes to relieve Sr. Marie on nightwatch at the insane asylum, and finds her dead with a knife in her back. She holds Marie's wrist, summons two other sisters to take her away, and takes her place, all without making a sound. The scene is described in such detail that readers say they're sure it was also in the film, but it wasn't. It's the vivid words, the description of nightmarish horror absolutely contained and silent, that make you see the whole scene enacted with Audrey and Eva Kotthaus.
  • La Résistance: The last straw that leads to Sister Luke renouncing her vows and returning to secular life is the Nazi invasion and occupation of Belgium, and her desire to help the "underground" in smuggling Belgian soldiers out of the country (in Real Life Audrey Hepburn, herself a Belgian, was involved with the Dutch Resistance as a teenager; her family had moved to the Netherlands before the war).
  • Lighter and Softer: Some of the novel's criticisms of convent life have been mitigated. Most notably, the Mother Superior tells Sister Luke that it had been wrong to ask her to fail the examination, a scene nowhere present in the novel.
  • Napoleon Delusion: A madwoman in the asylum thinks she's the archangel Gabriel.
  • Off-into-the-Distance Ending: Gabrielle decides to leave the convent and rejoin the secular world. The camera watches from inside the convent as she walks away. In the book we follow her for a while as she re-engages with the outside world.
  • The Oner: The last shot of the movie. The camera points at Gabrielle and turns to follow her as she walks out of the convent. The camera remains motionless inside the convent as Gabrielle walks out and down a long street for over a minute before turning right and out of the shot.
  • Scare Chord: Used when a priest at a leper colony in the bush shows his hands to reveal that he has contracted leprosy.
  • Taking the Veil: The Vocation variety of this trope, as Gabrielle joins the convent of her own free will. The first half of the movie follows Gabrielle throughout her training until the leaves at the end.
  • Unresolved Sexual Tension: There's an obvious sexual attraction between Dr. Fortunati and Sister Luke, most obvious in the scene where she shyly partially undresses in order for him to examine her. But she wants to be a good nun, so they never act on it. Fortunati is the one who tells Sr. Luke that she has no business being a nun, but it's because she's such an excellent nurse. He's right.
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: When Sr. Luke has been agonizing over whether or not to deliberately fail her exam, she is asked to verbally list the clinical types of pernicious as differentiated from chronic or latent malaria; after a pause of heart-wrenching inner turmoil, she names cerebral, algid, bilious remittent fever, blackwater fever, and bronchopneumonic foam. A horrifying Scare Chord punctuates her Wham Line ... as the viewer wonders whether it means she threw the test or not.
  • White Man's Burden: Played absolutely straight in the Congo latter part of the film that finds Luke in the Belgian Congo. The nuns of the hospital see themselves as a civilizing influence, and believe that they have to teach the natives how to deliver their babies and how to wash them. In the book, the African ladies teach the nuns a thing or two as well. And naturally, the heathen savages have to be converted to Catholicism. The nuns have no problem with having separate white and black hospitals, and they refer to grown African men as "boys." The oppression of colonialism in the Belgian Congo is nowhere in evidence within The Nun's Story.
  • You Know What They Say About X...: "You know what they say about monkeys" *does the Monkey Morality Pose*