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.
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.
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.