Dozens of well-known American and British actresses have portrayed religious women in film. Some of them—Jennifer Jones in “The Song of Bernadette” and Susan Sarandon in “Dead Man Walking”—won Academy Awards for their performances. There have been nuns who broke into song—Debbie Reynolds in “The Singing Nun,” and Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music.” Many other Oscar-winning actresses—Loretta Young and Celeste Holm in “Come to the Stable,” Rosalind Russell in “The Trouble with Angels,” and Shirley MacLaine in “A Mule for Sister Sara”—have starred in light comedies, and an odd couple of other Oscar-winners—Whoopi Goldberg and Maggie Smith—shared convent life in “Sister Act.”
With a book whose title might be an allusion to the biblical Salome, Veiled Desires, Maureen Sabine focuses on “the cinematic nun as a woman and a religious in the twentieth century, one striving for a life that integrates personal and professed, worldly and sacred, traditional and modern, gender and spiritual aspirations.” In doing so, she challenges Anders Nygren’s authoritative study of “Agape and Eros” which, drawing a strong contrast between the two types of love, “repeatedly underlines the superiority of self-giving agape and self-seeking eros.” Sabine aims at deconstructing this dichotomy as she discusses in considerable detail the contents and contexts of a dozen films, beginning with “The Bells of St. Mary’s” (1945) and ending with “Doubt” (2008). Each film focuses on a particular brand of “desire” in the lives of women religious: sexual desire and sublimation in “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison,” the selfless desire to serve others in “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” the passionate and even pathological desires that arise in “Agnes of God,” and the desire for salvation in the face of sin and death in “Dead Man Walking,” among others. She lists about 20 other films that she refers to throughout the study as well.
It is not coincidental that these films starred some of the most popular and attractive Hollywood “ladies”: Ingrid Bergman, Deborah Kerr, Audrey Hepburn, Julie Andrews, Susan Sarandon, Meryl Streep and others whom Sabine often describes as “ethereal” or “luminous.” She suggests that the casting of this type of actress “may point to something more powerful: which is the redoubled energy of desire she radiates as a film star and a religious icon in a modern visual era where the cinema has replaced the cathedral.”
Along with the analysis of the films, Sabine sometimes describes the place of these roles in the careers of certain actresses. Having portrayed numerous noble and heroic women in “Casablanca,” “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” “For Whom The Bell Tolls,” and even a saint in “Joan of Arc,” Bergman fell precipitously off the pedestal when she became pregnant with the child of married director Roberto Rossellini in 1949. In response to this “betrayal” to her millions of fans, she was denounced in the Senate as a “powerful influence for evil” and effectively blacklisted from Hollywood. For the next several years, it was assumed that her career was over. (It was not.) Sabine also describes the life of the former film actress, Dolores Hart, who, known as the actress who gave Elvis Presley his first on-screen kiss, entered a Benedictine Abbey in 1963 and happily remains there today.
Sabine comments that, of course, most of these films about women religious were written and directed by men. She suggests that one of the reasons for the high quality of “Dead Man Walking” was the involvement of the actual subject of the film, Helen Prejean, C.S.J., who was regularly consulted and present on the set. Similarly, the director and screenwriter John Patrick Shanley’s first-grade teacher, Sister Peggy McEntee, on whom he modeled the character of the young Sister James, was also a technical advisor on his film version of “Doubt.”
She also notices the intertextuality of these films. “The Bells of St. Mary’s” shows up in two very different films. Frank Capra includes a scene from the film in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” making the clear comparison between the sacrificial agape of Ingrid Bergman’s Sister Benedict and Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey. Many years later, in the true story of the abusive nuns running the Magdalene homes for Irish “bad girls” in “The Magdelenes,” the sadistic warden Sister Bridget identifies with Sister Benedict as offering up her own life as a sacrifice (ironically not only of herself but of thousands of hopeless young women).
Readers will have their favorite chapters, but in my opinion Sabine illustrates her theme most thoroughly in her study of “Dead Man Walking.” She documents the many ways in which the 1995 film depicts a contemporary nun who lives and works in a housing project, wears distinctively inexpensive clothes rather than a religious habit, and offers spiritual direction that was formerly a ministry reserved mainly to priests and monks. In the course of the film, the bond between her and the death-row inmate whom she counsels “becomes emblematic of the love story between God and undeserving humanity, in which agape and eros meet.”
The study is perhaps too detailed and sometimes repetitious, but it beautifully exemplifies the benefits of interdisciplinary research in gender studies, church history, cinematic analysis, and American culture. Her 25-page bibliography testifies to her thoroughness and range, and her vast compilation of evidence convincingly illustrates that “in their dramatic contention with the lifeforce of eros and the divine force of agape, cinematic nuns occupy a space where the veil momentarily parts between this world and something beyond it.”