Hepburn gets in the Habit
"The Nun's Story" has one of the most descriptive titles going because this is simply a movie about a young woman who becomes a nun and the trials and tribulations of living a life religious obedience. There is no huge action, no big drama, no sex, no violence just plain and simply a look at a life of sacrafice and difficulty. That probably makes "The Nun's Story" sound utterly boring but that is far from the truth because this sort of behind the scenes dramatization is mesmerising from start to finish as we become aware of the discipline and sacrafice it takes to be a nun and stay being a nun. And of course it stars Audrey Hepburn in what in all honesty is probably one of her most brilliant performances.
The year is 1930 and Gabrielle van der Mal (Audrey Hepburn - Funny Face), the daughter of respect Belgium surgeon Dr. Pascin Van Der Mal (Dean Jagger) leaves behind her upper-class life to enter the convent with a desire to end up as a nurse in the Congo. But Gabrielle soon finds following the disciplined lifestyle of a nun, obeying silence and attending service a testing experience as she struggles with humbleness and humility. Still holding on to her desire to work with the natives in the Congo Gabrielle, now known as Sister Luke, has to deal with disappointment as her superiors see that she is not ready to deal with the natives and even when eventually sent to the Congo she finds herself working in the European hospital alongside the cynical non believer Dr. Fortunati (Peter Finch). Constantly tested as her desire to help conflicts with the strict discipline things come to ahead when she is forced to return to the convent in Belgium as war breaks out.
The irony of "The Nun's Story" is that it doesn't sound that fascinating when described as a look at the life of a nun yet it ends up one of the most fascinating movies I have watched. That fascination comes from the semi behind the scenes look of being a nun as we follow Gabrielle through all the various stages and how she struggles with it. And that is in essence the key to the movie because whilst we watch as she eventually heads to the Congo and has a run in with TB the drama is more to do with whether or not Gabrielle is able to submit fully to being a nun or whether the strict discipline conflicts with her need to care.
Now I don't know how authentic "The Nun's Story" is when it comes to the behind the scenes look of a convent and what a woman goes through as she becomes a nun but it does seem believable. From having to confess to all disobedience, be it having pride or speaking during silent time it all feels very real and to be honest very strict as we also see attachment frowned upon. And quite surprisingly it is also quite dramatic because as we watch and learn what is and isn't allowed we not only spot the indiscretions but also feel the turmoil that Gabrielle suffers as she struggles with complying with the strict rules.
It is not just this emotional struggle because there are also various other moments of drama, a scene which sees Gabrielle's glorious hair being hacked short is surprisingly shocking and so is a scene where she suffers an incident in a hospital for the insane. But there is also the drama as Sister Luke ends up working alongside Dr. Fortunati because whilst the element of relationship is kept to a faint pulse you have him as a symbol of temptation that can't make sense of the need for strict discipline. As I said for a movie which on paper doesn't sound that brilliant it ends up utterly fascinating much of which is thanks to Fred Zinnemann's stunning direction whose use of restraint heightens moments of tension especially during the ending.
Of course "The Nun's Story" is also an Audrey Hepburn movie, in fact whilst she is supported by good performances from Peter Finch, Edith Evans and Peggy Ashcroft this is a movie all about Hepburn. And what a fantastic performance to deliver so much emotional conflict when you are dressed as a nun with just your face showing. Hepburn brings the character to life so we understand her desires, her determination to succeed at being a nun and her struggle with obedience to strict rules.
What this all boils down to is that "The Nun's Story" on paper doesn't sound like much of a movie and just going on the synopsis the only thing which seems attractive is that it stars Audrey Hepburn. Yet this behind the scenes style look at the struggle of being a nun is absolutely fascinating and 100% captivating.