It’s the simple story of the Belgian girl Gabrielle Van Der Mal, from Bruges, a respected surgeon’s daughter whose dream was to serve in the Belgium Congo as a nurse and who later finds some fulfillment in being a missionary nun.
The headstrong Gabrielle takes the nun’s vow and goes by the name Sister Luke. Trained in nursing school, Sister Luke finds it difficult to abide by the strict rules of the Order — such as their rules for silence. After nursing school, Mother Marcella accuses Sister Luke of having too much pride and purposely assigns her to an asylum in Belgium instead of the Congo as requested. Sister Luke tries to be dedicated in serving others, but is nearly killed by a dangerous schizophrenic mental patient after she thought that she could control the patient by not going by the book in carrying out procedures. After some three years, Sister Luke’s sent by the Mother to the Congo and is assigned to work for the gruff dedicated chief-surgeon, Dr. Fortunati, in the white hospital for the Europeans instead of working with the natives as desired. The handsome agnostic bachelor doc gets her to let go of her idealism and become more practical-minded, and takes her along to a leper colony. The hard-working nun, meanwhile, back in the hospital contacts tuberculosis while working around the clock. Through Dr. Fortunati’s efforts, Sister Luke recovers and is taken off duty for some R&R and is sent back to Europe to accompany a patient. Sister Luke is then ordered by Reverend Mother Emmanuel to return to the convent. When World War II erupts, Sister Luke follows the edicts of her order and does not take sides. This becomes nearly impossible when in occupied Belgium her beloved widowed dad is executed by the Nazis for aiding refugees to escape. —Ozu’s World of Movie Reviews
Vienna-born Fred Zinnemann had childhood dreams of becoming a musician, and later planned on a law career, before his viewing of the movies of Erich Von Stroheim drew him into the movie business, initially as a cameraman. He came to the United States in 1929, and later found work as an editor, and subsequently as an assistant to documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty, and then as an assistant to choreographer Busby Berkeley. He joined MGM in the late ‘30s as a director of comedy shorts, and won an Academy award for his 1938 short subject That Mothers Might Live. Zinnemann moved up to full-length features in 1941, but found little opportunity to work on anything but B-pictures until 1948, with The Search, a drama set in post-World War II Europe. He didn’t really become a major recognized box-office name as a director, however, until 1952 when his Western drama High Noon, starring Gary Cooper, which had been perceived by most observers as headed for commercial disaster, became a monster… read more
As impressed as I was with the acting and the directing I felt a little frustrated by what felt like a rather secular take on an explicitly religious story. Sister Luke came across as a deeply human person doomed to live up to the expectations of a strict religious order, without any grace or divine assistance. Perhaps my criticism betrays optimistic religious leanings, but this film felt too starkly realistic.
To articulate the emotional conflict of a young woman torn between wanting to follow the discliplinary pratices of becoming a nun and the almost natural and effortless pang to rebel is not easy. In this role, Ms. Hepburn essays a character that is absolutely compelling, throwing herself headlong into the role and in the process delivering a performance that is one of the most unaffected I have seen.
The Nun's Story lost 8 to 0 against William Wyler's Ben Hur during the 1959 Academy awards ceremony. No problemo, God was the winner after all. Curious how In both films, we also have a long scene with lepers but, in the Nun's Story, our Lord didn't make a miracle and allowed a devoted doctor to catch the disease. That's the whole difference between a blockbuster doomed to meet the larger possible audience and a film directed by an auteur (I didn't say that Willam Wyler wasn't an auteur). Recommended.