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Film / The White Sister

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Behold, another silent film about Lillian Gish being sad!
The White Sister is a 1923 silent film starring Lillian Gish and Ronald Colman. It was adapted from the F. Marion Crawford novel by the same name, which was previously adapted as a film in 1915 (this version is missing presumed lost). In 1933, the novel received a third adaptation, as a talkie directed by Victor Fleming starring Helen Hayes and Clark Gable. Additionally, a Mexican version was made in 1960.

Set (and filmed) in Naples, Gish is an Italian aristocrat named Angela Chiaromonte and Colman is the dashing Captain Giovanni Severi. They are very much in love, of course. After the death of Angela's father, Prince Chiaromonte, she is cheated out of her entire inheritance by her jealous half-sister, the Marchesa di Mola. But Angela doesn't care about that as she still has Giovanni. He has to go off on a military expedition to Africa, but she promises to wait for him. When she receives word that he was killed by Arabs, she has a mental breakdown. She recovers in a Catholic hospital run by the "white sisters," a.k.a. nuns. Wanting to give back and not wanting to marry any man other than Giovanni, she decides to become a nun herself. But oops, turns out Giovanni is still alive.

Having been released in 1923, The White Sister entered the Public Domain in 2019.

This film has the examples of:

  • Arranged Marriage: Angela is arranged to marry the son of Count del Ferice. This arrangement is quickly cancelled after it's determined that Prince Chiaromonte's second wife (Angela's mother) was never legally married to him, giving it no bearing on the plot whatsoever.
  • Billed Above the Title: Just look at the poster on this page, and observe how Lillian Gish's name is larger than the film's title.
  • Break the Cutie: It's a Lillian Gish film, after all.
  • Chekhov's Volcano: They didn't spend the beginning of the film talking about Mount Vesuvius for nothing.
  • Christianity is Catholic: Justified, as the setting is 1920s Italy.
  • Disney Death: Giovanni is not dead after all.
  • Dramatic Irony: As the news of Giovanni's supposed death spreads, it's intercut with scenes of Angela romantically dreaming about their future together. Later, as Giovanni races home to marry her, it's intercut with scenes of Angela officially becoming a nun.
  • Dressing as the Enemy: Used by Giovanni during his escape from the Arabs.
  • Good Shepherd: Monsignor Seracinesca is paternal and understanding, even as he insists that Angela and Giovanni can never be together now that she's a nun.
  • Hollywood Darkness: The climax features a lot of day-for-night filming.
  • I Gave My Word: Of course, Angela would not have become a nun if she'd known Giovanni was alive, but she nevertheless refuses to break her vows.
    "I have pledged my word to God and He alone can release me!"
  • I Will Wait for You: Angela fully intended to do this, but didn't count on Giovanni turning up alive after his supposed death.
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Being played by Lillian Gish, Angela is, of course, endlessly selfless and noble.
  • Lost Will and Testament: Following Prince Chiaromonte's death, the Marchesa di Mola burns the will. Combined with the fact that his second marriage, to Angela's mother, is declared legally void, this means the Marchesa gets everything while Angela gets nothing.
  • The Plot Reaper: Not long after his return to Italy, Giovanni dies for real in a Heroic Sacrifice. Yay, no more moral dilemma for Angela!
  • Rebellious Princess: Technically not a princess, but Angela nevertheless starts off as an aristocrat with a similar rebellious streak.
  • Redemption Equals Death: The Marchesa. In a Deathbed Confession, she admits that she cheated her sister out of her fortune, and expresses regret for kicking her out of the house as well. After a moment of struggle, Angela forgives her.
  • Riches to Rags: Angela loses her wealth after her father's death.
  • Saintly Church: The Catholic Church is depicted positively, with no corrupt or unsympathetic characters working for it. In particular, the "marriage to the Church" scene, in which Angela officially becomes a nun, is portrayed with solemn reverence for the rituals taking place.
  • Stay in the Kitchen: "The tyranny of the church — enslaving women who should be wives and mothers!" Oh, that Giovanni.
  • Taking the Veil: Angela becomes a nun because she thinks her One True Love is dead, but actually he isn't.
  • Traumatic Haircut: When Angela's long hair is cut short as part of the ritual of becoming a nun.