1959 / Best Actress / Best Director / Best Picture

Film #217: The Nun’s Story (1959)

Audrey Hepburn is definitely one of cinema’s most iconic faces and Oscar recognised this by honouring her with five Best Actress Oscars during her career. However, only two of those were for appearances in Best Picture nominees with one being Roman Holiday and the other being the next film on our list, The Nun’s Story.

In the film, Hepburn plays Gabrielle Van Der Mal; the daughter of a brilliant doctor who herself dreams of being a medical professional and decides to become a nun so that she can work in one of the hospitals in the Congo. The first hour of the film is devoted to her becoming a nun, later known as Sister Luke, including her taking orders as well as learning her vows, which means she can no longer have memories or want physical things. When it finally comes to time to take her medical exams her mother superior suggest that she fail her exam in order to show humility however when she passes she is assigned to a mental hospital in her native Belgium rather than her preferred destination of the Congo. Finally she is allowed to go to Africa where she works with Peter Finch’s brilliant atheist Dr Fucani who tries to get her to open up but her vows won’t allow it. While in the Congo she sees the dangers of the country when one of the other nun’s is killed by a villager and she is later transported back to Belgium after she contracts TB. Missing her life in the Congo she is called to be a nurse again when she has to treat casualties hurt in the bombing of World War 2 however her feelings towards the Nazi Party make her think that she can be a nun no longer especially when she finds out her father has been killed. The film ends with Gabrielle denouncing her orders and leaving the convent once and for all her experiences their having made her a better person.

As I mentioned the first hour of The Nun’s Story is almost exclusively reserved for Gabrielle’s transformation into Sister Luke including watching her during dinner and during mass. As you can imagine this is pretty dull at times however it does make you relate to the characters and also what it takes to become a nun in the first place. The film really picks up in when Sister Luke makes it to the Congo partly due to the on-location filming that really makes you feel like you’re there with the characters and partly because of Peter Finch. This is the first time we’re seeing Finch as part of the Oscar Challenge, it won’t be the last, and he makes Fucani his own being very forthright but at the same time you can see he cares about Sister Luke whether that be in a romantic way or just friendly concern is a matter we have to decide for ourselves. What makes The Nun’s Story so great though is Hepburn herself who at times is the only reason to keep watching throughout you can really believe her as this young girl forced to leave behind everything she knows to give herself wholly to God. I feel she is better here than in her Oscar-winning turn in Roman Holiday partly because this film is heavier meaning the role has more gravitas and partly because it is a more mature performance. Overall this was a film of two halves one a semi-documentary on how nuns are welcomed into a convent and the other a medical film set in Africa coupled with a World War II movie. Thankfully Audrey Hepburn is the star that makes the most of her role and therefore this film is a lot better for having her be a part of it.


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