The Nun’s 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 she 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 gain 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 border on infantilism. (Hulme never explicitly condemned this in her book, either, but she very powerfully suggested it.) 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. (But like Peter Finch’s Dr. Fortunati, we all do anyway.) The real strength of the performance, though, is that it’s all in the face: showcased in helpful habits, Hepburn has to emote from within and bring it all out through her eyes and then voice. The pride and vulnerability and mounting irritations with her situations and dilemmas are all right there to be empathized with—especially by conflicted-hearted Catholics who see the Church today as a collapsing haven for totalitarians and pedophiles, not the promise of ecumenical compassion. There’s a painful understanding of regret mixed with relief when watching Sister Luke shed her religious garb and prepare to reenter the secular world; the very kingdom of goodwill became an isolation ward of perversity she had to escape. Watching her leave and walk back to her justified pride is perhaps Zinnemann’s finest moment as director. Some of the Congo location shots show a few too many natives posing, story transitions seem rushed if not abrupt. Solid supporting work by Finch (delivering observational nifties with polish) and Dames Edith Evans and Peggy Ashcroft who know what to do with Catholic Churchspeak—that intoned, arched lingo as reverential superiority. (Catholics world-wide who were educated by nuns have it in their systems like a virus, and performers almost always have the greatest time getting infected by it.) That’s fundamental to the on-going subversive pleasure of movies about Catholicism: its extraordinary grandeur, panoply, artistry and seething sensuality contradict more than augment its infantile catechism and fascist order. It’s the only religion that asks its adherents to repress the enjoyment of all its built-in sensations and ignore the sinners who created them.
Text COPYRIGHT © 2005 RALPH BENNER All Rights Reserved.