I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started watching The Nun’s Story, but what I got was a simple story made into an excellent and enjoyable film.

On the surface, the story of a nun may not seem the most exciting basis for a film, and granted, there weren’t any great twists or moments of high drama. But The Nun’s Story turned this story of a nun into an interesting and engaging film that really made you care about the central character, so you were truly invested in her and what she did.

Whether you are religious or not, The Nun’s Story is worth a watch, if only to see Audrey Hepburn put in a wonderful performance as Sister Luke and to see that films don’t need to be over-the-top to be great!

The Nun’s Story is based on the novel by Kathryn Hulme, which itself is based on the life of a nun called Marie Louise Habets, Knowing that the central character is based on a real person adds an extra dimension to the film and makes it feel more meaningful and interesting.

Plot Summary

Gabrielle “Gaby” Van Der Mal (Audrey Hepburn) is the daughter of a well-known Belgian surgeon (Dean Jagger). She longs to nurse in the Belgian Congo, and in the 1920s she enters a convent.

There she is named Sister Luke, and we see her as she trains to become a nun. She struggles with some of the demands, but she does take her first vows and eventually goes to the Institute of Tropical Medicine.

Audrey Hepburn as Gaby, training to be a nun.
Nun in training

Her talents for medicine shine through but she struggles with obeying her vows, as she feels pride and finds it difficult to show humility, for example. Despite passing her exams with flying colours, because the Mother Superior believes she is not “spiritually” strong enough yet, Sister Luke is not sent to the Congo as she desires.

Instead, she goes to nurse at a mental hospital and faces struggles of a different kind from the patients.

At long last, Sister Luke takes her solemn vows and finally is sent to the Belgian Congo to nurse. She works in the “whites/European” hospital alongside a talented surgeon, Dr Fortunati (Peter Finch), who is non-religious and very sceptical and cynical about faith. Nevertheless, they develop a strong working relationship.

But Sister Luke works long hours and the strain of this, as well as her attempts to improve her spiritual side, cause her to fall ill with tuberculosis.

Because she doesn’t want to go back to Belgium, Fortunati arranges it so that she can stay in the Congo as she recovers. She does make a full recovery, but not long after she is forced to accompany a patient back to Belgium as the best-qualified person for the job.

Although she hopes to return to the Congo, she is given new tasks in Belgium and, when war breaks out, return to the Congo is impossible.

The war exacerbates Sister Luke’s struggles with her faith, as she feels hatred towards the Nazis and is unable to feel forgiveness. It’s at this point that she feels that she can no longer be a nun.

My thoughts

I was pleasantly surprised by The Nun’s Story. Considering it was over 2 hours long and I’m not at all religious, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as much as I did.

The time flew by as I watched this great film! Much of the success is definitely down to Audrey Hepburn, as she helped to create a sympathetic character that we liked and were really invested in. She was a “real” person, in the sense that she wasn’t perfect and was trying to do her best, but not always managing to act or think as her vows commanded.

As the film is purely about Sister Luke’s story, it was essential that the audience connected with her, and Hepburn made sure that we did!

I think everyone can relate to trying to balance conflicting feelings. Even though most of us haven’t taken vows like Sister Luke, we have all felt the struggle of trying to do or be one thing but getting pulled in another direction too.

Watching Sister Luke go through these struggles was fascinating and really makes you think about how you deal with conflicting feelings, desires and emotions.

Close-up of Sister Luke
Sister Luke

Through the film you really feel like you are on Sister Luke’s journey with her, as she started off so hopeful and looking forward to being a good nun and doing good in the Congo. She managed to get so far, and did achieve her dream, but still she fought to obey her vows and act and think as a nun should.

If I was to find fault in the movie, it would be that the beginning of the film, where Sister Luke is learning to be a nun, perhaps could have been shorter, but only because I would have loved to see more of her in the Congo.

But I guess that not going to the Congo until over halfway through the film made us appreciate how long it took Sister Luke to get there and all the struggles she went through to achieve her dream. The first half of the film, with all of the training in the convent made us see and understand Sister Luke better, which set things up for the rest of the film.

But even though I understand this, I still would have liked some more time in the Congo. I really liked Sister Luke and Dr Fortunati’s respect and friendship for each other and would have liked to see more of this (I would not want their friendship to develop into anything more though!) It would also have been good to see more of her relationships with other characters in the Congo, but then the film would have ended up incredibly long!

I also think it’s worth mentioning that this is a great film for all the female characters it has (unsurprisingly as it’s about a nun!) and the fact it doesn’t rely on sex, violence, laughs, or other things that often make movies successful- just a good story.

A team effort

Credit needs to be given to Fred Zinnemann as his direction and vision for the film also made it a success. There is no big build-up to a major event, there are no laugh-out-loud moments, there are no big action scenes- the only thing that makes us keep watching is the story of Sister Luke and so it is essential that we connect to it. And, in my opinion, we do.

Considering a lot of the scenes were quiet (as nuns should limit their conversation), while other scenes were quite dialogue-heavy about spiritual matters, this film had the potential to be quite heavy and, dare I say, boring? But because of the direction, production and actors, in particular Hepburn, this was not the case at all!

Overall, although the story and struggles of a nun doesn’t sound like it would be a very compelling film, it really was. You felt what Sister Luke was feeling as she tried to do her best and balance her emotions and duties, and at the end of the film you understood her decision.

As she left the order, she no longer had the struggles of trying to meet the requirements demanded of a nun. But this wasn’t a great release. Instead, it had the feelings of resigned acceptance that she had, not necessarily failed, but just that her character wasn’t suited to the life of a nun.

I think the final scenes underline this. There was no emotional farewell or great rousing music, or indeed, any music at all as Sister Luke/Gaby left the convent. She signed the necessary documents, was sent to a room to change into normal clothes, rang a bell, then left to go into the outside world.

A suitable understated ending for an understated story.

Favourite Quote

“Pride has not been burned out of me. When I succeed in obeying the rule, I fail at the same time by having pride in obeying.”

Sister Luke

I feel that this quote captures the conflict and struggles that Sister Luke feels throughout the film. When she said this, it highlighted how difficult it is to be a truly “good nun”, and it was relatable as we have all felt pride at doing even a simple thing right.

Summary

The Nun’s Story may not have a reputation as an all-time great film, but it is definitely worth watching. It is an enjoyable and thoughtful film that may not seem to have a lot of action or drama on the surface, but once you start to watch you are drawn into Sister Luke’s struggles and experience her journey of emotions with her.

Audrey Hepburn plays the role of Sister Luke perfectly, so it is worth watching for that alone. But even if you start watching because of Audrey Hepburn, you will want to watch to the end to see what comes next in Sister Luke’s story.