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

The film opens in 1930 with Gabrielle van der Wal, 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.

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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.


Tropes:

  • 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.
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  • 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, 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. 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.
  • 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 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.
  • Cult: Joining a convent comes off as something very like this. You have to dress the same way everyone else does. Your hair gets cut off. You take a cult name. You are expected to leave your past life behind you, giving up all your possessions, not even allowed to remember your past. You prostrate yourself on the floor and confess your failings in group criticism sessions.
  • Everything's Better with Monkeys: Sister Luke gets a cute little monkey to be her companion while she's recuperating from TB in the Congo.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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. 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 unspeakable cruelty, savagery, and oppression of the Belgian Congo, which had been infamous for decades before this film and inspired Joseph Conrad to write Heart of Darkness, is nowhere in evidence within The Nun's Story (granted, at the time of the film the worst abuses had been ended).
  • You Know What They Say About X...: "You know what they say about monkeys" *does the Monkey Morality Pose*
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