Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1950s: The Nun’s Story

Audrey Hepburn as Sister Luke, The Nun's Story, 1959.

Audrey Hepburn as Sister Luke, The Nun’s Story, 1959.

We continue and conclude our survey of the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1950s.

For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1940s, click here.

For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1930s click here.

For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1920s click here.

20. The Nun’s Story, 1959

Think of Audrey Hepburn and chances are memory conjures the beloved actress as the chauffeur’s daughter in Sabrina, the socialite Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the restless Princess Ann in Roman Holiday, and the street urchin Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady.

Peter Finch and Audrey Hepburn, The Nun's Story, 1959.

Peter Finch and Audrey Hepburn, The Nun’s Story, 1959.

But Audrey Hepburn’s most powerful and vivid performance is as Gabrielle van der Ma, a young nurse, who becomes Sister Luke, in The Nun’s Story, a deeply moving film based on the best selling novel of the same name by Kathryn C. Hulme.

In 1930, Belgium, Gabrielle van der Mal is the independent-minded daughter of a prominent surgeon who decides to leave her upper-class family to enter a convent, hoping to work as nun with natives afflicted with tropical diseases in the Congo.

To be a nun, a humble servant of G-d, means transcending the ego. Thus, life in a convent seems to be a supreme inner battle to embrace humility at the expense of individuality.

Mapping the inner life of the soul is not, on the face of it, movie material. Movies are best when they move, and move quickly. Which is why the chase is one of the most vital foundation blocks of the movies.

However, the fine screenplay by Robert Anderson does a remarkable job of depicting the spiritual journey of Sister Luke’s character. And Fred Zinneman’s direction is, at all times, focused on the minute details of her life. Particularly effective are the preparation to become a novice and the beautifully elaborate rituals of vows taken by those who choose to join the order. Zinneman choreographs movements with all the grace and simplicity the subject matter demands.

When Sidney Lumet and I were working on A Stranger Among Us, studio executives worried that there were too many details of Hasidic life in the movie. It was, in short, too Jewish. They feared the film would not be “universal enough” for a general audience.

With the wisdom of a great director who understood drama — and a movie veteran skilled at handling skittish executives — Sidney responded with an explanation I have never forgotten, a simple and truthful response that saved our movie from a mindless dilution of the material.

Said Sidney Lumet to the roomful of overwrought Hollywood executives: “The more specific you dramatize a culture, the more universal it becomes.”

Every exec in the room hesitated, glanced at one another, and then smiled in exquisite comprehension.

The Nun’s Story has such jaw-dropping and hypnotic specificity, such relentless focus on the details of ritual, that I recognized my own life as a Torah-observant Jew in Sister Luke’s narrative.

Gabrielle struggles with the practice of silence and has a hard time giving up all her possessions. Of course, the audience sympathizes with Sister Luke. We want her to succeed, and yet we dread losing Audrey Hepburn.

Ultimately, Sister Luke is assigned to a hospital in Congo where she works as a nurse for Dr. Fortunati (Peter Finch), an atheist, an alcoholic, and a brilliant surgeon. Fortunati comes to rely on Sister Luke’s excellent nursing, and when she comes down with tuberculosis he treats her himself rather than send her back to Europe. Of course, there is nicely understated sexual tension between Fortunati and Sister Luke, but it’s all subtext.

Sister Luke struggles and stumbles with her decision to remain a nun. The film respects the complexity of a religious Catholic narrative. In the process, it reveals the goodness of her soul and the righteousness for which she strives.

Audrey Hepburn’s performance has all the grace and dignity we expect from such an accomplished actress. The conflict and passion her character feels is observable in the quick flash of her eyes — which she tries to suppress — and the manner in which her spine goes slightly rigid when she contends with the demands of her order. In movies, acting is reacting, and Hepburn’s subtle characterization of Sister Luke is skilled and sensitive, a properly hushed performance. This was, by far, the most demanding of all Hepburn’s roles — and her greatest triumph. It’s not surprising that this was Hepburn’s favorite of all her roles.

All great movies are, at the core, love stories. The Nun’s Story is about Sister Luke’s love for G-d. Her yearning for spiritual perfection through the Christian love of Jesus is a profound and deeply moving insight into the human heart.

The Nun’s Story is riveting and humbling.

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This concludes our survey of the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1950s.

Seraphic Secret will soon move on to the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1960s. However, we need some time to screen a whole bunch of films from that era, thereby refreshing old impressions and memories, so we can choose wisely and write with proper authority.

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26 Comments

  1. Posted April 25, 2013 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

    My children are very impatient with me because I love old movies and have little interest in more recent examples. Another good nun movie in my recollection was “Heaven Knows Mr Allison.” Can anyone imagine a studio making “Going my way” or “Bells of St Mary’s” today ?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted April 25, 2013 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

      I love Heaven Knows Mr. Allison. Just saw it again recently and was knocked out by how good it is.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

      • M.R. Smith
        Posted April 25, 2013 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

        I’ve heard of HEAVEN KNOWS, MR. ALLISON, but I don’t know a thing about it. I’ll check it out.

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

      • Shyla
        Posted April 29, 2013 at 7:00 am | Permalink

        I get the best movie tips from this site! I just got Heaven Knows Mr. Allison from Netflix because of this discussion, and what a wonderful movie it was. Spoiler alert: Robert Mitchum’s tender proposal, then reaction to her explanation, was so dear–you rarely see that sort of sensitivity on the screen nowadays.

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  2. Bill Brandt
    Posted April 25, 2013 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    Thank You Robert!
    This passage – ” The more specific you dramatize a culture, the more specific becomes its meaning to every culture.”
    Am I reading this right when I discern the meaning to be that even though on the surface this facet we’re highlighting seems foreign, the more we can see in our own culture?
     
    In A Stranger Among Us, I saw honor among the community, discipline – the life they led that would be pleasing to G*d, compassion….universal human traits that most aspire to having
     
    On Hepburn, she was supposed to be wonderful to work with on the set. Humble and drama free.
    I read a biography of her in her son Sean’s wonderful recollection of her – An Elegant Spirit , and because of her father the family moved from England to Holland just before the Nazis invaded. She subsisted on a starvation diet as a child, which gave her the compassion for children in her adult life (working with the UN)
     
    Perhaps you have heard this story – but it illustrates her sense of humor.
     
    She was just getting her first big movie – Roman Holiday – and wanted to buy a wardrobe for the movie (this was before it was pretty ironclad that stars would be fitted by the studio).
     
    She called up a new designer, Hubert de Givenchy, and scheduled an appointment with his secretary. On the appointed day, she shows up and Givenchy tells her that he has an appointment, but she can look through the rack of last year’s fashions.
     
    Audrey, humble and elegant spirit that she was, then went through the rack.
     
    Of course, when Givenchy’s “appointment” didn’t show – he learned that Audrey was that appointment, not the Katheryn Hepburn he was expecting.
     
    They laughed about that for years and Audrey was one of the few stars that had in her contract her ability to select her own wardrobe – from Givenchy.
     
    I think she was a fashion icon.
     
     

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted April 25, 2013 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

      Bill:

      You’re welcome. Sidney was saying that the more specific you present a culture, the more universal it becomes.

      Everyone who worked with Audrey Hepburn loved and respected her. And she was, as you know, a wonderful mother.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  3. Posted April 25, 2013 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    You will find a list of great ’60s movies more of a task, Robert – the wheels really started coming off the cart during that decade, at least in Hollywood.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted April 25, 2013 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

      Rick:

      You are correct. The 60s were a pretty dismal era for Hollywood. But there were some really great films. Let’s see if I can find twenty.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

      • sennacherib
        Posted April 25, 2013 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

        Hey, Hey, Hey, in my most humble opinion two of the greatest films ever made were in the 60s’ and I have been waiting sooooo patiently for you to get there!

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

        • Robert J. Avrech
          Posted April 25, 2013 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

          Let’s see, could they be:

          1. Beach Blanket Bingo, 1963
          2. Faster Pussycat, Kill Kill!, 1965

          Hope not:-)

          Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

          • sennacherib
            Posted April 25, 2013 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

            Now I know it’s your blog, but you shouldn’t mention your own work;-).

            Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

            • Robert J. Avrech
              Posted April 25, 2013 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

              Hey, I’m proud of the movies I made when I was 13 and 15 years old:-)

              Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

          • Bill Brandt
            Posted April 25, 2013 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

            I laughed out loud at that!

            Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

            • M.R. Smith
              Posted April 25, 2013 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

              Does your list of Best Films of the ’60s include PSYCHO, THE LION IN WINTER and MAJOR DUNDEE, and if not, why not?

              Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  4. Barry
    Posted April 25, 2013 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    Robert:
     
    Could be that  fifties film taste and me don’t mesh. With some exceptions. Will wait for more and better. Also, the new bar at the bottom of your site just keeps coming and coming. Turning into something tedious for me.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted April 25, 2013 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

      Barry:

      I’d love to see your list of the greatest movies of the 50s.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

      • Barry
        Posted April 25, 2013 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

        Robert:
         
        Thank you for the invitation. I have thought about a favorites list, thirties, forties and fifties. No essays but a few random thoughts. Hasn’t been completed, but when, as and if, how do I get it to you?

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  5. kohana
    Posted April 25, 2013 at 6:15 am | Permalink

    Robert, I want to thank you for all these reviews of older movies. I have thoroughly enjoyed these reviews. I have profound hearing problems, thus have not seen very many movies, and don’t recognized very many of the actors and actresses. Since some of the more current movies on DVD have CC I have been able to access a few but the vast majority of films still do not have that feature.
    Audrey Hepburn is probably one of my favorite actresses, and I do have My Fair Lady on a video, but no CC. Alas…
    I will look for “A Stranger Among Us” on a DVD with CC.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted April 25, 2013 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

      kohana:

      You’re welcome. And thanks so much for your kind words. I wish more films had CC because Senior citizens also have a hard time catching dialogue. A complaint I’ve heard form many older relatives. I have no idea if Stranger has CC, but if not, my apologies. I wish I had some influence over these things.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  6. sennacherib
    Posted April 25, 2013 at 6:05 am | Permalink

    Wonderful movie. Audrey is one of my three favorite actresses. Side note: I was taught by nuns grades 1-8, best education I ever had. Never saw a Hepburn, but I can say for a fact I never knew in the army any Command Sergeant Major (exception possibly Basil Plumley) as fearsome as Sister Leo! It was said the Big Guy above was more lenient on transgressions and misdemeanors.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted April 25, 2013 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

      sennacherib:

      Audrey is a true legend. I wrote one film called Within These Walls, starring Ellen Burstyn and and Laura Dern based on the true story of a nun who started an amazing prison program. I spent a lot of time with the real life nun, Sister Pauline, on whom the film is based. She, and the prison in which I conducted my research, had a profound effect on my life.
      Here’s the link to the film. I have a feeling you’ll like it:

      http://www.amazon.com/Within-These-Walls-Ellen-Burstyn/dp/B000MTEFSC

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  7. M.R. Smith
    Posted April 25, 2013 at 6:00 am | Permalink

    When I read the book, I recognized my life as a Torah observant Jew, trying to lead a disciplined life, trying to live the way G-d wanted me to, in Sister Luke’s spiritual struggles. I had a similar reaction to the character of Marguerite, who also becomes a nun, in Elizabeth Goudge’s Green Dolphin Street.
     
     

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted April 25, 2013 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

      Green Dolphin Street is a lovely film.

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      • M.R. Smith
        Posted April 25, 2013 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

        Dear Robert:
        The book is even better.
        Your mention of Eliza Doolittle reminded me of something. If My Fair Lady had been translated into Spanish, 30 years ago, perhaps using Castilian for Henry Higgens’s upper class Edwardian accent and Puerto Rican Spanish for Eliza’s cockney accent, don’t you think that Rita Moreno and the late Raul Julia would have been blow-your-socks-off good as Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins?

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  8. Rahel
    Posted April 25, 2013 at 5:39 am | Permalink

    Robert, thank you for reminding me why I like this film so much. I really must see it again.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted April 25, 2013 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

      Rahel:
      You’re welcome. Yes, seeing films we love years later, when we are older and, hopefully, wiser, can be a wonderful experience.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

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