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Nadra Nittle January 24, 2020
Audrey Hepburn as Sister Luke and Peter Finch as Dr. Fortunati in “The Nun’s Story” (Credit: Warner Bros)

One of Audrey Hepburn’s most compelling films—1959’s “The Nun’s Story,” directed by Fred Zinnemann—is also one of her most overlooked. In an Oscar-nominated performance, Hepburn plays Gabrielle van der Mal, a young woman who joins an order of nuns in 1930s Belgium to fulfill her dream of becoming a nurse in the Congo. Inspired by the true story of Marie Louise Habets, fictionalized in the 1956 novel of the same name, “The Nun’s Story” features a Hepburn without the haute couture seen in films like 1954’s “Sabrina” or 1957’s “Funny Face.” Sans the luxurious clothes, expertly applied makeup and elegant hairstyles, she uses only her face to express anguish, fear, disappointment and exhaustion.

Hepburn’s breakthrough role as Princess Ann in 1953’s “Roman Holiday” led to her becoming widely known for her charm and gamine appearance, a stark contrast to bombshells like Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. Because of her waifish look, she was often relegated to portraying likable and quirky young women, giving rise to the idea that she owed her career more to a winning combination of charisma and cuteness than to her acting prowess. Since her death in 1993, doubts about Hepburn’s acting abilities have persisted.

One of Audrey Hepburn’s most compelling films—1959’s “The Nun’s Story,” directed by Fred Zinnemann—is also one of her most overlooked.

In 2015, Hepburn’s son, Luca Dotti, revealed that his mother felt insecure about her acting ability. Five years earlier, the two-time Oscar winner Emma Thompson sparked a public backlash when she described Hepburn’s acting as “mimsy-mumsy sweetness without any kind of bite.... She can’t sing and she can’t really act, I’m afraid.” The Guardian’s film critic, Peter Bradshaw, declared that Thompson “ha[d] a point,” citing a 2001 essay about Hepburn by the feminist critic Joan Smith, which described her as a “child-woman” whose characters were “the product of a series of male constructions.”

In “The Nun’s Story,” however, Hepburn does not rely on her signature charm to woo filmgoers. Often she comes across as unlikeable, and the other characters in the film tell her as much. Her Gabrielle van der Mal is ambitious, prideful and a perfectionist, qualities that cause her distress in the convent. While Hepburn’s characters undergo stunning makeovers in “Sabrina” and “Funny Face” and a delightful makeunder in “Roman Holiday,” the transition of her character from civilian to sister in “The Nun’s Story” is agonizing. Those who have reduced Hepburn’s legacy to her twee-ness would be wise to watch this film, in which she is stripped of her cutesy demeanor to inhabit a character constantly in turmoil.

Beyond showing that Hepburn could act, “The Nun’s Story,” whose 60th anniversary is this year, is a film about the intersection of faith and the world. It examines the toll one woman’s effort to balance these factors has on her well-being. Today, when a quarter of Americans describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” and a growing number say they are stressed and worried about the state of their country, the film remains relevant. It is partly set during World War II and chronicles the activities of the anti-fascist Belgian Resistance. It raises questions about race and imperialism, as it covers Belgium’s occupation of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. But at its core, “The Nun’s Story” is a “women’s picture,” one of the many Hollywood films released between 1930 and 1960 that explored a (white) woman’s psyche during a key chapter in her life. In these films, women are depicted as their own person rather than as accessories to men. For Gabrielle van der Mal, it is precisely this quality—this sense of her individuality—that makes her a poor fit for the convent.

A Misfit From the Start

“The Nun’s Story” is not a subtle film, and it is clear from the outset that Gabrielle, the daughter of a world-renowned surgeon, is not convent material. She has inherited her father’s knack for medicine and joins a religious order because it will give her the opportunity to travel the world treating the sick and the poor. Her medical ambitions are so strong that she has broken off an engagement to enter the convent. A quiet life as a homemaker was never going to fulfill this driven young woman—but neither was life in the convent. Her father, Dr. Hubert van der Mal, suggests as much when he warns one of his daughter’s superiors about her “stubbornness.” He also tells Gabrielle that he will support her should she leave the convent and return home, a remark he makes as much because he will miss her as because he senses she has chosen the wrong vocation.

In “The Nun’s Story,” Hepburn does not rely on her signature charm to woo filmgoers. Often she comes across as unlikeable.

During her six-month postulancy, she and the other postulants are told how important it is that they practice humility, but Gabrielle keeps drawing attention to herself. She fidgets with her veil, races down the convent halls, speaks during the grand silence and raises her head to look around when she should be lying prostrate. “Pride has not been burned out of me,” she tells a postulant named Simone, who leaves the convent before taking her vows. “When I succeed in obeying the rule, I fail at the same time by having pride in obeying.”

She is a woman used to excelling in her endeavors and assumes she will quickly be the perfect nun. But her mother superior points out how wrongheaded such an expectation is. “It is not easy to be a nun,” she says. “It is not a life of refuge from the world. It is a life of sacrifice. In a way, it is life against nature. It is a never-ending struggle for self-perfection. Poverty, obedience, chastity are extremely difficult.”

But a slip of the tongue reveals that Gabrielle’s difficulties in the convent go beyond the ordinary difficulties any postulant would have during her adjustment to sisterhood. When the reverend mother informs her that Dr. Van der Mal has asked when she will get the opportunity to practice medicine in the Congo, Gabrielle behaves as if she has no such ambition so early in her career.

“I just want to become a good nurse and a good nun and to do God’s work wherever I am sent,” she says. To which the reverend mother replies, “First, become a good nun.”

“The Nun’s Story” is not a subtle film, and it is clear from the outset that Gabrielle, the daughter of a world-renowned surgeon, is not convent material.

The retort reveals that Gabrielle’s ambitions are out of whack. She mentioned her desire to be a good nurse before mentioning her desire to be a good nun. To succeed in the convent, her priorities must shift, but they never do. When her six-month postulancy ends and she commits herself to being a nun—she is given the name Sister Luke—she remains singularly focused on practicing health care in the Congo.

When she is sent to the School of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp, Sister Luke is hopeful that her chance to head to Africa has finally arrived. In class, she wins the praise of her teacher, an admirer of her father, but this makes one of the students jealous. Sister Luke turns to her superior for guidance about the matter. Instead of giving her any sort of sensible advice, Mother Marcella asks her to intentionally fail the qualifying exam for the Congo to soothe her classmate’s wounded ego. It is an act of humility that is too great for an anguished yet ambitious Sister Luke. She ultimately earns the fourth-highest score on the test but is not rewarded with a trip to the Congo for her efforts. Rather, she is ordered to serve patients in a Belgian mental institution. In the asylum, her pride costs her again when she ignores advice not to deal with certain inmates without assistance. When a patient who believes herself to be the Archangel Gabriel begs her for a drink of water, Sister Luke opens her cell without asking for backup, and the woman viciously attacks her.

Bruised, bloodied and furious, Sister Luke chastises herself: “Pride. Pride and disobedience.

Always disobedience!”

Mother Christophe, her superior at the institution tells her: “You must learn to bend a little or you’ll break.... You must have patience with yourself. Unhappy saints are lost from the beginning.”

It is advice Sister Luke cannot quite bring herself to take.

Nursing in the Congo

When at long last Sister Luke is assigned to the Congo, she appears truly joyful for the first time. But even this happiness is fleeting. She is crushed upon discovering that she must work in the European hospital instead of the Congolese one. “The Nun’s Story” never explains why working with Africans is so important to her. One gets the sense she feels that this is where the true adventure lies, in a country so unlike her native Belgium with people so different from the elite Europeans with whom she grew up. In this way, this woman’s picture differs little from white male fantasies of Africa like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, also set in the Congo.

The scenes in the Congo make the film feel dated. Black men are routinely referred to as “boys,” and the black women who are shown do little more than smile as Sister Luke and the other nuns handle their babies without permission. Despite the atrocities King Leopold II of Belgium carried out in the Congo Free State, the Congolese people generally welcome the European newcomers. The exception is a gullible black man who kills a nun, Sister Aurelie, under the misguided influence of a “witch doctor.” After the nun’s murder, a black medical assistant named Ilunga, who has held onto his traditional religion, converts to Catholicism, Aurelie’s greatest hope for him before her demise. With his conversion, any resistance to European rule vanishes.

A quiet life as a homemaker was never going to fulfill this driven young woman—but neither was life in the convent.

For the most part, black people are used as props in “The Nun’s Story.” Sister Luke’s main focus during this portion of the film is Dr. Fortunati (Peter Finch), her supervisor at the European hospital. An excellent surgeon, Dr. Fortunati is a man of contradictions—a nonbeliever who is well versed in Catholicism. During their first meeting, he calls out Sister Luke for boasting about who her father is and, later, intuits that she is too independent for the convent. He sees through her in a way no other character does, a fact that has led film scholars to view their strictly professional relationship as one rife with sexual tension.

When Sister Luke contracts tuberculosis, Dr. Fortunati tells her: “You’re not in the mold, Sister. You never will be. You’re what’s called a worldly nun. Ideal for the public. Ideal for the patients. But you see things your own way.... You will never be the kind of nun that your convent expects you to be. That’s your illness, and TB is the byproduct.”

At this point, Sister Luke has already been gently reprimanded by her superior, Mother Mathilde, for implementing new protocols at the hospital without telling her first. She is undoubtedly a woman who “sticks to her own ideas” and continues to do so when she lets Dr. Fortunati conceal her TB diagnosis to avoid being sent back to Europe. Her tuberculosis is not advanced, and Dr. Fortunati is confident he can help her recover, ordering her to relax and recuperate in a treehouse with a pet monkey for company. It is here where we see glimpses of a playful Audrey Hepburn. As she is recovering, we see a shift in her, from a woman who was constantly hard on herself to one who begins to finally embrace herself as a nonconformist and independent thinker.

When she eventually heads back to the motherhouse in Belgium, Sister Luke struggles to forget the Congo. After World War II begins, Sister Luke cannot simply live her life “as if nothing has happened,” as she is told to do. When Germans kill her father while he is treating refugees, she knows the time has come for her to leave the convent because she will not forgive the enemy. Her inability to forgive is just one of her faults, she admits, cementing her decision to return to secular life. She is asked to reconsider her decision, but Sister Luke knows that she is “no longer a nun.” Of course, she never really was. This isn’t news to the reverend mother, who tells her she had been aware of her struggle. But it is the first time that Sister Luke is willing to admit that she has been suffering all along.

“I think I’ve been struggling all these years, Reverend Mother,” she says. “In the beginning, each struggle seemed different from the one before it. But then they began to repeat, and I saw

they all had the same core: obedience without question, without inner murmuring.”

That is the crux of Sister Luke’s struggle. Medicine was more of a religion to her than Catholicism ever was. Had she been born during a time when women had more options, it is unlikely that Gabrielle van der Wal would have entered the convent at all. Hence, her central conflict is not with the church but with a society that limits women’s potential. Not content with the prospect of becoming a wife and mother, Gabrielle enters the convent in hopes of achieving her dreams, only to wrestle with the realization that her love of medicine must come second as a nun. Too worldly for the convent, she leaves the institution, putting her medical skills, the viewer is led to believe, to use in the Belgian Resistance.

The Impact of “The Nun’s Story”

Although “The Nun’s Story” was one of Audrey Hepburn’s most commercially successful films—earning $12.8 million off a budget of $3.5 million—it is hardly the movie most associated with the actress. That honor goes to 1961’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” which has cemented the image in the public consciousness of Hepburn in pearls, a black cocktail dress and a beehive hairdo. The popularity of her Holly Golightly party girl role may be why some critics easily dismiss Hepburn as a “child-woman” and style icon who lacked depth as an actress.

“The Nun’s Story” proves them wrong. It is not just that she gives “quite possibly the finest [performance] of her entire career,” as Warner Brothers described it in its 60th-anniversary commemoration of the film; it is that “The Nun’s Story” is very much a feminist work. Maureen Sabine, the author of Veiled Desires: Intimate Portrayals of Nuns in Postwar Anglo-American Film, argues that more feminist cultural critics should take an interest in the film:

It honors the feminist protagonist’s point of view,” she states. “It reflects [director] Zinnemann’s admiration for intelligent, ardent, and strong-willed women characters; it is sensitive to how hard they have to work to come within reach of their professional goals; it recognizes that failure is a risk inherent in aspiration; and it is respectful of the nun’s hidden life of striving, struggle, suffering, and sacrifice.

Audrey Hepburn’s filmography shows an actress drawn to roles focused on reinvention. In “The Nun’s Story,” her character undergoes a series of reinventions, but the most important is the shift Gabrielle van der Mal makes from being a woman at war with herself to one accepts who she really is. Only then does her suffering end.

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