THE NUN’S STORY (Fred Zinnemann, 1959)

In turning down the role of Sister Luke in The Nun’s Story, Ingrid Bergman suggested Audrey Hepburn instead; the charming comedienne and elfin Givenchy clotheshorse managed a sober, restrained, intelligent performance as the Belgian nun. But this is both a trivial film and a noxious one—trivial, because it is a glossy, superficial entertainment, not a serious investigation of Sister Luke’s battle with her pride, which it purports to be; noxious, because it transports Sister Luke to the Belgian Congo as a nurse without once questioning the viciousness of colonialism. In this context, how does one keep from being appalled that the film makes jokes—makes jokes—about converting black African natives? One can, I suppose, read into Sister Luke’s renunciation of her final vows and rejection of her cloistered life also her repudiation of the whole nonsense of “saving souls,” where people in fact have a better religion than Christianity for its being rooted in their own culture and environment; but the movie scarcely allows us to do this. Rather, the financially cunning director, Fred Zinnemann, engineers a path for his manipulated audiences to feel at the last, in a long-shot through an open convent back door, a sighing sense of all that Gabrielle Van Der Mal is giving up and losing by reuniting with the world. Zinnemann’s patently dishonest approach “balances” this loss, of course, against Gaby’s future commitment to the cause of resisting the Nazis. Filmmaking doesn’t get more meticulous and meretricious than this. Another example of the “balancing” act by which scenarist Robert Anderson and Zinnemann cancel all intellectual advancement in their nasty film: one superior counsels Sister Luke to show humility by deliberately failing an important exam, while another superior says that the first, while “[meaning] well,” had no right to make such a suggestion! You know the routine: Good nun, bad nun.
     Hepburn (best actress, New York critics) is lovely, but the performance here that matters is the rakish, snappy, sensual one that Peter Finch gives as Dr. Fortunati, the surgeon whom Sister Luke, as Gaby the daughter of a surgeon herself, assists in the Congo.
     The Nun’s Story, which is badly photographed, badly scored, badly everything, goes on and on at ridiculous length just to convince us how hard Sister Luke tries to be a “good nun.” Instead of devising means by which we may infer this, the film might have taken a different tack: it might have shown us this. But that isn’t how this bogus kind of film operates.

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