Friday, September 2, 2022

The Story of “The Nun’s Story”

Little girls of my generation were fascinated by nuns. This had nothing to do with being Roman Catholic: in my recollection the kids with the least respect for nuns were those unfortunates who attended Catholic schools, and were subjected to what they saw as a rigid and humorless group. But those of us with zero Catholic connection were entranced by the long heavy robes, the cropped heads covered by veils, the very idea that someone would wholly give up her private life for the sake of an ancient ritual. That’s probably why we gravitated toward everything from Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison to The Sound of Music. And, of course, we read Katherine Hulme’s 1956 best-seller, The Nun’s Story, based on the life of an actual Belgian nun who nursed the sick in the Congo during World War II. Somehow, though, I never saw the major Hollywood film based on that novel—until now.

 It's well known (everywhere but at the new Academy Museum) that the American film industry was largely started by Jewish immigrants. Still, despite the ethnic backgrounds of men like Jack Warner, Carl Laemmle, and Samuel Goldwyn, they were eager to please the American public by hewing as closely as possible to what they viewed as traditional American values. From the moment that censorship threatened to enter the picture, studio bosses actively looked to the Catholic Church for public approval of their projects. Particularly in the 1930s, the point-person within the industry who was charged with keeping the silver screen moral was Joseph Ignatius Breen, a devout Roman Catholic. Breen, who enforced the so-called Hays Code with missionary zeal, made sure that Hollywood films did not stray from subjects and behaviors of which the Church approved. Even after Breen’s retirement, the infamous Production Code continued to be largely enforced, until the arrival of television made the industry eager to capture and hold new audiences—at which point (we’re talking about the Sixties, of course) all hell broke loose.  

 What I hadn’t realized until now was that a big-budget film based on Hulme’s popular novel was hardly a slam dunk. Apparently, Warner Bros. sought to bring this material to the screen before the book was even published, but naysayers worried that its story—which depicts a gifted young woman’s inability to make peace with the unrelenting demands of her order—might alienate Catholics by casting a dim light on Church values. After all,  Sister Luke must agree to suppress her vibrant personality in order to conform to Church requirements for obedience. At one point she’s even told by a superior to fail an all-important exam as a necessary exercise in humility. Eventually director Fred Zinnemann and screenwriter Robert Anderson (neither of them Catholic) were persuaded that it was essential not to criticize the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary, while  also acknowledging that Sister Luke, for all her talents, was unsuited to the strict discipline the order required.

 Without Audrey Hepburn in the starring role, there would apparently have been no film. She’s perfectly cast as a young woman in love with God and with the chance to save souls by repairing damaged bodies. In the film’s early scenes, we are steeped in Church ritual—the flickering candles, the solemn processions, the rapt faces—and understand her commitment. But we also see how she blossoms, far from the Mother Church, in the Belgian Congo, where she can put her intelligence to work, unafraid of violating arcane rules of modesty and silence.  In the year of Ben-Hur, this film garnered 8 Oscar nominations, but (alas) not a single win.

 Happy birthday to Hilary, who (thankfully) is not a nun.







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