Monday, January 9, 2012

"The Nun's Story" (1959)

"Gaby, I can see you poor.  I can see you chaste.  But I cannot see you, a strong-willed girl, obedient to those bells."


So says the very loving father, a prominent surgeon in Belgium, to his daughter on her way to enter a convent.  His daughter is Gabrielle van der Mal, soon to become Sister Luke.  Audrey Hepburn, under the direction of Fred Zinnemann, deservedly got a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her excellence in The Nun's Story.  This blog will be about one of the most important scenes that happens at the end of the story.  So, if you have not seen the movie, be advised this piece will contain spoilers.  I'll be writing about Zinnemann's acclaimed ending.  To me, this film is a Zinnemann masterpiece.  It has my favorite performance by Audrey Hepburn.  Her role here, like Elizabeth Taylor's in another Warner Brothers classic of the 1950s, Giant, is a boldly feminist role in a pre-feminist era.  I'm Catholic.  I was an altar boy.  I've learned and conformed to Catholic rituals taught to me in school by nuns.  When my younger sister and I saw The Nun's Story on local TV, we were parochial high schoolers on summer vacation back in the late 1960s.  The conflicts of Sister Luke hit our young Catholic consciousness like a lightning bolt.  The 1960s. That decade of change was, to borrow from Yeats, "a terrible beauty."  How were we supposed to be good Catholics in a turbulent new world with our religion's crusty, musty old traditions, rules and regulations?  Not that there weren't cultural customs about it we didn't love, mind you.  But the corporate aspect of it, the Vatican City orders, often seemed so out of touch.  Zinnemann's art about a Belgian nun in the 1930s connected to our lives as young Black Catholics in South Central Los Angeles.  We felt a part of ourselves in the spiritual obstacles faced by Audrey Hepburn as Sister Luke.
Dean Jagger as Gaby's father says, "...there's no sense of failure in coming back home." What a gift of emotional support for a parent to give a child! Especially for a father to give a daughter in a film seen by a 1950s audience.  He doesn't pressure her to get married and have children.  He wants her to be proud of herself.  He respects her intelligence, her independence, even her stubbornness.
The movie opens with the sound of the church bells that Dr. van der Mal refers to early in the story.  Of course, his hunch is correct.  Once inside the convent to begin her transformation into a nun, Gaby is immediately hit with the cold hard facts of the corporate side of convent life.  Her ambition is to heal the sick, especially in the Congo.  But her goal to be a good, active Christian and make the world a better place conflicts with rules of organized religion.  She didn't know about these Holy Rules ahead of time.  The top one is:  "Strict obedience to the bells."  Grand Silence follows the toll of five bells.  Immediate silence.  Humility is practiced by walking close to the walls.  The postulants training is a bit militaristic.  The new recruits are awakened early.  They go to bed early. They learn to detach from things and memories.  In services, they accuse themselves before the Sisterhood of their failings.  Failings like daydreaming, talking after the bells tolled, gazing in a mirror or having a glass of water between meals.
 As Reverend Mother, played by Edith Evans, says "Dear Children, it is not easy to be a nun."  She's right.  But we can tell that Sister Luke internally questions what these old rules, all that useless guilt and shame, have to do with the supreme basic message of Christ.  To help those in need.  Also, like father, the daughter distinguishes herself in the field of medicine.  Convent life doesn't really foster self-achievement.  It's more about absence of self.  In some of the visually striking postulant ceremonies, Zinnemann cuts to faces of the veteran sisters.  They are not the jolly nuns in sentimental earlier Hollywood films like The Bells of St. Mary's and Come to the Stable or a later movie like the box office champ, The Sound of Music.  Some of these nuns look spiritually shell-shocked.  Dead in the eyes.  To become a nun, a woman becomes a Bride of Christ. But must she also become His silent, submissive housewife?  Steely Sister Luke has to deal with the human side of her fellow sisters. Donning a religious uniform doesn't make one angelic.  These women are human. There are feelings of envy, jealousy, insecurity, pride and stubbornness.  All this Sister Luke has to contend with, plus a dangerous inmate at a mental asylum, before she's Congo-bound.
The Congo section of the story reveals more about Sister Luke's character.  She relates to the Congo on its own terms.  "Please, God, let me do some good" Sister Luke says softly to herself as her voyage begins.  There's no trace of European colonial attitude in her.  One nun is cheerfully determined to get one of the African natives to convert and stop wearing "that fetish" around his neck.  She's totally clueless that the natives could view the crucifix around her neck the same way.  This will cause drama.  So will Dr. Fortunati (Peter Finch).  A skilled doctor, like her father, he's a dedicated and blunt realist who's fascinated with Sister Luke.  He respects her talent and individuality.  He likes the feminist fire she struggles to suppress.  He dislikes that organized religion makes such a brilliant woman suppress that fire.  Gaby, we can tell, could fall in love with a man like Dr. Fortunati is she wasn't Sister Luke.
In director Fred Zinnemann's literature of film, he makes strong statements with the simple placement of a crucifix.  It can reveal something about place and character.  He did so in his classic From Here To Eternity, his big Oscar winner of 1953.  Previously Mary Bailey in Capra's It's A Wonderful Life, Donna Reed won the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her tough and touching performance as the prostitute who works in a special "gentlemen's club."  On duty, she's "Lorene," working for a bovine madam in that Hawaii bordello. She threw herself into the business after a guy back home broke her heart because she was from the wrong side of the tracks.  Now, like the sisters in The Nun's Story had to do, she's detached emotionally.  Money is her new religion and she's out to make a lot of it.
But her name's not really "Lorene," like Gaby van der Mal's name really isn't Sister Luke.  It's the name in her profession.  Her real name is Alma.  And she's lonely.  These revelations come out when she falls for the complicated G.I. played by Montgomery Clift.  At her home, with him, in the days counting down to the attack on Pearl Harbor, we see her as she really is.  As she really wants to be.  This always breaks my heart about Reed's Alma.  At the club, she's a high class hooker.  But look at her at home.  A clean place with hardcover books and flowers on the shelves.  Alma has on a tasteful suburban housedress and a chain with a little crucifix around her neck. A small detail that says so much. That simple piece of jewelry is something she never wears at work.
In a climatic scene, Alma tearfully rages and pleads with him not to leave her.  In her shot, books behind her in the bookcase, she has on a conservative dress and there's that little crucifix around her neck as she cries out, "a 30-year man! What did the Army ever do for you!"  What an image.  In that frame, she doesn't look like a hooker. She looks like a scared, anguished, proper housewife. In the nunnery, as new recruits file into the convent following their leader, Sister Margharita (played by Mildred Dunnock), the   dominant object at the far end of the hall is a huge crucifix with the dying Jesus Christ on it.  Gaby distinguishes herself in the fields of medicine and religion.  She's an exceptional nun.  But there's still the spiritual conflict.  Especially when she returns from the Congo and Nazis have occupied her homeland.  The nuns are ordered to be passive.  They treat wounded Nazis in the wartime hospital.  Sister Luke's spirit is too rebellious.  Nazis killed her father.  She hates the enemy.  She wants to fight back.  She can no longer adhere to archaic convent rules of strict obedience.  She will not bend.  She asks for the paperwork to leave and re-enter civilian life.  "I am no longer a nun," she confesses.
When I studied Film As Art in college, I had a terrific professor named James W. Arnold.  He was a New York film critic who'd written a book called Seen Any Good Dirty Movies Lately? A Christian Critic Looks At Contemporary Movies.  I love film and his classes at Marquette University thrilled me.  In one class, he talked about this film.  He said that, when Sister Luke leaves the convent at the end, Zinnemann repeats the bells tolling as they tolled at the beginning of the film. There's no music score under the scene to tell you if her decision is happy or sad.  We don't see Hepburn's face so we can determine her emotions as we do in her final moments of William Wyler's The Children's Hour So, as Sister Luke/Gabrielle walks out, there's ambiguity in the ending.  That's what Professor Arnold said. That class was in the 1970s.  TV host Robert Osborne said pretty much the same thing on Turner Classic Movies a few years ago when TCM showed The Nun's Story.  


I believe Zinnemann does let us know.  He doesn't do it with a close-up shot of Audrey Hepburn's face or in an another bit of music score from Franz Waxman.  He does it with the crucifix.

Sister Luke is loved by the sisters, doctors and her students.  But she still struggles, especially after Nazis killed a loved one.  As a nurse, the patients are her top priority.  But then there are the convent rules about Grand Silence when the five bells toll, even if one is tending to a patient in crisis.  As she says to Reverend Mother who wants her to stay, "Mother, why must God's helpers be struck dumb by five bells in the very hours when men in trouble want to talk about their souls?"  There is no satisfactory answer to that.  Sister Luke sticks to her decision to leave.  In an office, another one of her loving superiors questions, "Sister, have you really considered the seriousness of what you're doing?"  It's a 3-shot.  A priest, the Mother Superior and Sister Luke.  Notice the depiction of Christ behind Mother Superior.  It's the stripped, tortured, mutilated, mortally wounded Jesus on the cross.  Papers are presented for Sister Luke to sign.  There's a close-up of the papers, then Zinnemann cuts to a shot of Sister Luke.  Notice the figure of Christ behind her as she signs.  He's clothed, whole, alive.  His arms are outstretched, not nailed to a cross.  The scene continues.  The priest and Mother Superior leave the room.  Sister Luke has knelt for a blessing.  She remains kneeling as they leave.  Behind her in the frame is another figure of Jesus Christ.  This Christ is restored, refreshed, resurrected and right above her head.  With those religious objects as details in the frame, with his literature of film, Zinnemann tells you that the lead character has made the difficult but correct decision for herself.  Her spirit is resurrected.

"I'm coming back, you beautiful thing.  Do you hear me?  I'm coming back."  Sister Luke bids farewell to her beloved Congo when she gets orders to return to the convent.  In a very memorable way, life imitated art.  Actress Audrey Hepburn was born in Belgium.  She witnessed the Nazi occupation of her homeland.  She knew depression and starvation before United Nations help came in 1945.  Retired from film acting, the Oscar-winning star became luminous again as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF from 1988 until her death in 1993.  Like Sister Luke, she cared for the sick and poor in Africa.
True, she was no longer the young, fresh beauty of Roman Holiday, Funny Face or Breakfast at Tiffany's.  But I saw her in network news footage, so focused as she held and comforted the underprivileged.  She was not a celebrity making a charity appearance.  She was a humanitarian in an impoverished part of the world.  She was doing the work.  There was something about the intensity of her kind, compassionate spirit in action that made her seem more radiant that ever.  In this current age of Kardashians, we really should look back to the legend that film and fashion icon Audrey Hepburn left us.  We should look back and learn from her legend of UNICEF service.
Film-wise, she left us one of her peak performances with one of her most powerful, least-glamorous roles.  Fred Zinnemann's The Nun's Story reminds us of how good an actress Audrey Hepburn was. The cast includes Peter Finch and Beatrice Straight (both won Oscars for their work in Sidney Lumet's 1976 classic, Network), Dean Jagger, Dame Edith Evans and Colleen Dewhurst.  Thanks to Warner Archive, this Fred Zinnemann classic is available on DVD.  The Nun's Story was blessed with Oscar nominations for Best Director, Best Actress, Best Screenplay Adaptation and Best Picture of 1959.


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