Patricia Lawler KenetMarch 19, 2021
Gemma Arterton as Sister Clodagh in the FX  limited series "Black Narcissus" photo credit: FX

Movies that show what goes on behind convent walls, including the inner lives of women called to religious orders, satisfy a need in me that began in first grade, when the Sisters of St. Joseph entered my world. Those nuns were so severe and secretive that they sent my 6-year-old imagination into overdrive. I was mortally afraid of Sister Joan Isabelle, who ran my first grade with an iron fist, but I also enjoyed dressing up like her, rifling through my mother’s linen drawer to find just the right holy ensemble.

I hated, feared and desperately wanted to be a nun. With such a colossal case of conflict, there was nowhere else to turn but the movies. There, over the years, in the darkness of a theater, I watched nuns sing, fight for social justice, struggle with their sexuality and, in one surprise twist, learn about their Jewish heritage. When I was growing up, these films were awash in sentimentality and melodrama, barely scratching the surface of a nun’s inner life. Despite this, or perhaps because of this, I was hooked. Here are eight of my favorite nun movies, from the lighthearted to the thrilling.

In the darkness of a theater, I watched nuns sing, fight for social justice, struggle with their sexuality and, in one surprise twist, learn about their Jewish heritage.

One of my earliest and all-time favorites was “The Nun’s Story,” an Oscar nominee for best picture from 1959. It is the epitome of the dramatic “nun film,” with wide-ranging locations (including the Congo), a historical setting (World War II) and characters that included an ambivalent, beautiful novice and an irascible town hottie. The hunk is Doctor Fortunati (Peter Finch), who gets to examine the already excitable Sister Luke, played beautifully by Audrey Hepburn. What Catholic girl did not whisper, “Resist him!” as Fortunati’s expert fingers osculated her bird-like back? And what Catholic girl, including myself, could help but wonder what would happen if she didn’t? Resist she does, much to my adolescent chagrin.

Another favorite is “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison” (1957), directed by John Huston, in which a Marine corporal played by Robert Mitchum is shipwrecked on a Pacific island during World War II. He meets Sister Angela (Deborah Kerr), who has been left alone on the island after the native population fled in fear of invasion. To hide from the Japanese, the nun and soldier must cohabitate in a cave until their rescue. Despite Mitchum’s bedroom eyes and stubbly beard, Sister Angela takes the chaste high road. Nun movies like “Mr. Allison” present a love triangle in which it is difficult to compete with the third party: Jesus Christ himself.

While not a through-and-through nun movie, “The Sound of Music” (1965) captures the lovely journey of Maria, a novice who falls for a widower with seven children. Maria returns to the convent and confesses her feelings to the reverend mother, who says, “The love of a man and woman is holy too. My daughter, if you love this man, it doesn’t mean you love God less.” With boys on my adolescent radar and dreams of entering the convent fading, I mentally high-fived the reverend mother.

Nun movies like “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison” present a love triangle in which it is difficult to compete with the third party: Jesus Christ himself.

But perhaps one of the most acclaimed and complex nun characters came in Meryl Streep’s nuanced portrayal of Sister Aloysius Beauvier in “Doubt” (2008). Sister Aloysius’ bravery and defeat in confronting a priest suspected of sexually abusing a minor stings with relevance 13 years after the film’s release. Sister Aloysius struck a fine balance for me: She didn’t sing or play the guitar, but she wasn’t a sexual deviant of the type you would find in “American Horror Story” either.

Yet some of my favorite nun movies have been those with darker themes, including “The Devils” (1971), “Mariette in Ecstasy” (2019) and “Agnes of God” (1985). I was about 15 years old when I watched “The Devils” at Philadelphia’s Theatre of the Living Arts, and I went back to see it at least a dozen more times with my parochial school friend Mary Ellen Taggart. I loved seeing the nuns completely out of control—just the way I felt at that age.

A close second favorite to “The Devils” is “Black Narcissus.” I only got to see “Black Narcissus” as an adult, when I found the DVD at a Blockbuster. It is hard to imagine what my 11-year-old self would have made of that wild crowd, but my grown-up self reveled in it. As much as I mocked my husband for his unlimited capacity to rewatch any “Terminator” film, he had ample return ammunition when he found me swaddled in blankets mid-afternoon, the shades drawn, gorging on the unholy madness of “Black Narcissus.”

I loved seeing the nuns completely out of control—just the way I felt at that age.

In this acclaimed 1947 British film, directed by Michael Powell and Emeril Pressburger, Deborah Kerr stars as a mother superior of nuns gone insane. Sister Clodagh is sent to supervise a group of nuns in a castle atop the Himalayan Mountains, where the air is thin, the muraled walls suggest an erotic past, and the natives, oblivious to the strictures of Christianity, embrace earthly pleasures. Each nun begins losing herself to the lure of hedonism. Sister Phillippa, played by Flora Robson, plants flowers instead of much-needed vegetables. Sister Clodagh, while trying to pray, revels in the fantasies of the secular life—replete with emerald necklaces and a rich boyfriend.

As in “The Nun’s Story” and “Heaven Knows,” a sexy, stubbled outsider injects himself into the situation. Mr. Dean, played by David Farrar, is a cocksure agent for the British government. Bemused by the nuns’ holy lives and charitable intentions, he is certain that they won’t survive, saying, “I’ll give you till the next rain.” In his frayed hat, rolled-up shorts and unbuttoned shirt, Mr. Dean awakens the desire of Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), who eventually goes mad. After a string of tragic events, the nuns leave their strange and beautiful abode in the clouds, shaken and changed.

When “Black Narcissus” was released in 1947, the Catholic National Legion of Decency condemned it as “an affront to religion and religious life” for characterizing religious orders as “an escape for the abnormal, the neurotic and the frustrated.” Yet the film was a critical and box office success, garnering Academy Awards for cinematography and art direction.

The BBC and the U.S. network FX aired a three-part remake of “Black Narcissus” in late 2020. In the updated version, Sister Clodagh is played by the incandescent Gemma Arterton, whose face—framed by a white wimple—portrays sorrow, longing and devotion with great conviction as she confronts the challenges of her missionary duties and the conflicts within herself.

The new “Black Narcissus,” which includes one of the final performances of Diana Rigg, does not stray from the original story or attempt to add new meaning to it. Despite this, the idea of being isolated and the challenges attendant to losing the rhythm of everyday life rings with particular resonance after the past 12 months. This is something we can all relate to.

From saintly to sadistic—and filled with desire for God, for men, for power and for their own identity—nuns and movies about them continue to engage my curiosity. I still put down the remote and watch when I happen to land upon one of my old favorites—enchanted by the solemnity, comforted by the rituals, lifted by the commitment. I am well aware, however, that these films of the past often portray nuns as one-dimensional women—all good or all bad. Hopefully, in the future filmmakers will find a way to depict them as real women with all the nuance, complexity and insight they deserve.

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