LÈSE MAJESTÉ

The Nuns Story is Audrey Hepburn’s one genuine triumph as actress. You never get passed that it’s Hepburn as Sister Luke, but you never not accept her either; she could be playing the first “recovering” Catholic, of which there are now millions. Fred Zinnemann has made from Kathryn Hulme’s best seller about real nun Marie Louise Habets a movie that puts some real sting into Catholic-slanted tests aimed at destroying pride. Hepburn’s portrayal of Habets starts out with naïve hopes for a vocation in nursing but she soon discovers that she’s made to pay the price for her advantages—having come from a father renowned in the field of medicine—and has to be humbled into obedience by her order’s hierarchy which decrees that no single star shine more than the collective mission of the Church. (This before the days of Mother Theresa and Sister Angelica.) Accepting the subservience at first, trying hopelessly to acquire false humility and bow to compliance, soon enough it becomes too much to endure: she can’t fulfill vows that subjugate personal worth; her “I accuse myself” notebook of culpas fills up fast. Then she’s asked as test of “humility without hooks” to fail her medical exams to appease a jealous, incompetent nun. Hepburn’s decision—brought on by a clerical lèse majesté—is sparked by several converging factors: her own ego and expertise, her father’s reputation, and, though never overtly expressed, her fears that anything less than personal best would be giving in to demands made by a nun who sees no damage in stifling potential for the sake of rules and regulations that are sadistic and infantile. Hepburn’s success in the part is based only partly on downplaying the Givenchy image. She doesn’t have any fall back positions to rest on, like those svelty, classy “gamine” qualities people go gaga over; even the inimitable Audrey smile has been downsized so as not to fall too deeply in love with her. (As with Peter Finch’s Dr. Fortunati, we all do anyway.) The real strength of the performance is that, framed in habits, Sister Luke’s self-respect and mounting conflicts with situations and dilemmas are all right there in the face and voice to be empathized with—especially by equally conflicted Catholics who see the Church as an isolation ward of perversity and not the promise of ecumenical compassion. There’s painful understanding of regret mixed with relief when she sheds the religious garb to reenter the secular world to regain her justified pride and it’s perhaps Zinnemann’s finest moment as director. Solid supporting work by Finch delivering nifty observations with polish. Dames Edith Evans and Peggy Ashcroft know what to do with Catholic Speak—that intoned, arched lingo that people world-wide who were educated by nuns have in their systems like a virus. That’s fundamental to the on-going pleasures of movies about Catholicism—its infectious panoply of grandeur, artistry and seething sensuality subvert more than augment its doctrines and fascist order.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2005 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.