Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Nun's Story

In the program for the Summer 2013 series at the Stanford, they state that Audrey Hepburn films are the most popular in the history of the theater.  As I've grown older, I've come to appreciate her beauty and talent.  I remember reading once that Marilyn Monroe was a young man's sex symbol and Audrey Hepburn was an older man's sex symbol.  That's certainly true in my case.  At some point, I've aged out of Marilyn and find myself a huge Audrey Hepburn fan.

With that introduction, I should mention that Hepburn played a Catholic nun in last film I saw her in.

The Nun's Story starring Audrey Hepburn; with Peter Finch; directed by Fred Zinnemann; (1958)

Fred Zinnemann is a director whom I frequently overlook.  He helmed High NoonFrom Here to Eternity and Oklahoma!.  His work in The Nun's Story is equally impressive.   Zinnemann was nominated for a Best Director Oscar, The Nun's Story was nominated for Best Picture and Hepburn was nominated for Best Actress.

Gabby Van Der Mal (Hepburn) is a young woman in Belgium during the late 1920s.  At the beginning of the film, she is engaged to be married but she calls off the engagement to join a convent of nursing nuns.  Gabby's father is a well-respected surgeon and she has learned medicine under his tutelage.  It's not made clear why Gabby joins the nunnery; even her father is a little perplexed by her choice.  She clearly appears self-conflicted.

The film shows quite a few details of life in the convent.  The first hour of the film (total runtime is 2.5 hours) shows the minutiae and trials during Sister Luke's (Gabby's religious order name) postulancy and novitiate (I had to look those words up).  Pride and disobedience are two her biggest problems.  Frankly, the film did not make clear why she joined the sisterhood.  Perhaps she could not have become a nurse without being a nun but given her qualifications and connections, I find that hard to believe.

Sister Luke's desire is to be assigned to the Belgian Congo to treat the natives.  Sister Luke must first learn patience.  After passing her class on tropical maladies (despite her Mother Superior's direct order to purposely fail the class), Sister Luke is assigned to treat patients in a mental asylum.  Little more than a jailer, she again disobeys orders by entering the cell one of the most dangerous patients by herself.  Despite this action, she is allowed to become to take final vows and is eventually assigned to the Congo.

Once again, she is disappointed.  Rather than be assigned to the hospital which treats natives, she is assigned to the hospital which treats white Europeans.  It is here where she meet Dr. Fortunati (Peter Finch, an Englishman with an Italian surname).  She has a love-hate relationship with Fortunati who takes a juvenile pleasure in pointing when she not living up to her vows.  Working as his surgical nurse, Sister Luke and Dr. Fortunati develop a strong bond.  When she is diagnosed with tuberculosis, the standard procedure would be to send the patient back to Europe for treatment.  Fortunati is unwilling to part with his extremely qualified nurse so he treats her on site.  She makes a full recovery but is later forced to return to Europe to accompany a patient.

Upon arrival, she is reassigned to a hospital in Belgium.  In part, it is because the storm clouds of WWII are visible but also to test her devotion.  She moves back in to the convent where she did her postulancy and novitiate.  Her primary responsibilities are at a local hospital where she becomes a favorite of the patients.

The Nazis invade and occupy Belgium but her superiors make clear that she must remain neutral as a nun.  At the hospital is a local nurse who is a member of the resistance.  When Sister Luke becomes aware of her activities, she has a hard time remaining neutral.  This leads to another crisis of faith within Sister Luke.  Having struggled with her faith for entire career as a nun and informed of her father and brother's deaths at the hands of the Nazis, Sister Luke makes the decision to leave the order and return to life as a layperson.  It is strongly implied she will join the resistance but the film ends with Sister Luke leaving the convent in the same civilian clothes she entered.

This must have been a difficult role to act and direct because much of the conflict occurs within Sister Luke.  She's not an emotional person to so for long stretches we have to infer the inner conflict.  I thought Hepburn did a nice job in this regard.  As portrayed in the film, every minute as a nun was filled with self-doubt and inner conflict for Sister Luke.  Even her friendship with Dr. Fortunati seems fraught with sexual tension.   We see that those around her are amazed by her strength but nothing can calm Sister Luke's restlessness.  It was clear to me that she was ill suited to being a nun.  Perhaps she wanted to do the work of a nun but she didn't have the inner qualities necessary to be a devoted nun.  This is clear from the beginning but the essence of the film is showing Sister Luke's realization of this inevitability.

Zinnemann paces the story in a very measured fashion much like a nun's patience.  It never drags but reveals itself in accretive manner.  Scene-by-scene we learn about Sister Luke as a person and question whether or not she has the makeup to be a nun.  Ironically, it is when she decides she cannot remain neutral against the Nazi occupiers that she realizes the sisterhood is not her calling in life.  That would seem the most morally defensible disobedience but it is the one that convinces that she cannot remain a nun.

I was profoundly affected by Hepburn's performance and the film.  I felt emotionally drained at the end when she walks out of the nunnery.

The scenes in the Congo were filmed on location.  Sister Luke foreshadowed Hepburn's extensive work with UNICEF in final decades of her life.

Typically, the Stanford screens double features but given the 2.5 hour length of The Nun's Story and the fact that it was a weeknight, they screen the film solo.  Despite this disincentive, the screening was well attended...true to the program guide's proclamation about Hepburn's popularity among the patrons.

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