- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 19, 2009

Singularity is described as an ironic character defect within the cloistered society that expects unquestioning loyalty and obedience from Sister Luke, the protagonist of “The Nun’s Story.”

This curiously admirable, self-critical, uncompromising misfit, derived from a Belgian nun named Marie-Louise Habets and memorably portrayed by Audrey Hepburn in Fred Zinnemann’s 1959 movie version of Kathryn C. Hulme’s biographical novel — a somewhat astonishing best-seller of 1956 — regards herself as a failure after 17 years of emotional struggle with her faith and vocation.

Unable to suppress or transcend manifestations of her own impassioned individuality — independence of mind, pride in her skill as a nurse and hatred of the conquering German occupation army of World War II — Sister Luke renounces her vows. The movie concludes with an eloquent image of estrangement and uncertainty that echoes classic cinematic fade-outs, typically with an elegiac emphasis: The principal character walks away from the camera into the distance. The camera’s position, still inside a convent anteroom as the heroine leaves through an open door in the foreground, insists on the gravity of her past and future. The door does not close on her, like the ranch door that closed on John Wayne to conclude “The Searchers” in 1956. Yet in each case heroic loners exit unreconciled to places of refuge.

Evidently, the original Sister Luke found a refuge after being immortalized by Miss Hulme and Miss Hepburn. The writer, an acolyte of the Armenian-Greek mystic G.I. Gurdjieff during her youth, and the former nun met while working at a refugee camp in northern France soon after World War II. Eventually, they shared a life and home far from the madding crowd on Kauai. Miss Habets remained a volunteer nurse from time to time, including the period of Miss Hepburn’s recuperation from a near-fatal accident while shooting John Huston’s “The Unforgiven.” Miss Hulme died in 1981 at the age of 81. Miss Habets died five years later in 1986, when she was also 81.

Still the most haunting and thoughtful Hollywood movie ever made about the religious life, “The Nun’s Story” had its premiere almost 50 years ago to the day. Its prestigious success had been anticipated by the book’s popularity. However, there probably wouldn’t have been a prominent film version without Miss Hepburn’s participation, since the subject matter looked self-evidently troublesome and impractical before her interest persuaded Warner Bros. that it was worth the risk.

Fred Zinnemann had been alerted to the book by Gary Cooper, who won his second Academy Award under Mr. Zinnemann’s direction in “High Noon.” The actor also happened to be a Roman Catholic convert, and the project was dependent on the good will of Catholics who remained sympathetic to Sister Luke despite her defection.

It proved impossible to secure the cooperation of her actual Belgian order, the Sisters of Jesus and Mary in Ghent, although the filmmakers tried and went through a period of script consultation with a nun who professed to remember Sister Luke well. Miss Hepburn and the other actresses ultimately spent their training periods with a French order, the Sisters of the Oblates d’Assumption in Froyennes. The interiors were shot at Cinecitta in Rome, where Mr. Zinnemann recruited dancers from the Rome Opera to impersonate numerous nuns and postulants in the early processional scenes.

The director was working off a certain obligation to the studio. He had abandoned the film version of “The Old Man and the Sea” a few years earlier, and “The Nun’s Story” squared accounts with Jack Warner. Nominated for eight Academy Awards, including best picture, direction, actress and screenplay (by playwright Robert Anderson),” Nun’s Story” more or less duplicated the Oscar fate of “Anatomy of a Murder” that year: no awards in competition against the record-setting “Ben-Hur.”

Nevertheless, a luster clings to exceptional movies that get shut out in the Oscars. Two enduring favorites, Billy Wilder’s “Some Like It Hot” and Alfred Hitchcock’s “North By Northwest,” got far less consideration from the Academy membership in 1959. By all rights, “The Nun’s Story” should have had at least three more nominations: Alexander Trauner for color art direction, Marjorie Best for color costume design and someone for best supporting actress. The entire category could have been monopolized by cast members in “The Nun’s Story”: Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft, Beatrice Straight and Dorothy Alison as the most conspicuous sisters — and the young, menacing Colleen Dewhurst as the psychopath, Archangel, who assaults the heroine during her tour of duty in a mental asylum.

Pictorially accomplished and sometimes awesome, “The Nun’s Story” derived splendid contrasts from the round-trip shifts in location between Belgium and the Congo. Mr. Zinnemann would have preferred shooting the European sequences in black and white, but Franz Planer’s lighting is so beautifully modulated that an extreme contrast would have cost the movie some of its visual elegance. The subdued nature of the color imagery in Belgium — particularly the great shots of the facade of the mother house when first seen shimmering in a prolonged watery reflection, and then upon Sister Luke’s return, when the stone is shrouded in fog and rain — contrast brilliantly with the vibrant, heat-saturated African landscapes, which make sense of the heroine’s lament that she “can’t get the Congo out of my blood.”

It was fortunate for the movie company that they were able to shoot in the Congo securely in 1958. A year later, violent uprisings would have made their welcome dodgy at best. The shocking fictional death of Dorothy Alison’s endearing Sister Aurelie, ostensibly a calamity of the colonial Belgian Congo circa 1938, was multiplied during the year of the movie’s successful release. A photo in Mr. Zinnemann’s autobiography captures numerous well-wishers at the Stanleyville Airport when the film company departed in 1958. The caption notes, “Many of these missionaries were killed the following year.”

TITLE: “The Nun’s Story”

RATING: No MPAA Rating (released in 1959, a decade before the advent of the film rating system; fleeting graphic violence)

CREDITS: Directed by Fred Zinnemann. Produced by Henry Blanke. Screenplay by Robert Anderson, based on the novel by Kathryn C. Hulme. Cinematography by Franz Planer. Art direction by Alexander Trauner. Costume design by Marjorie Best. Film editing by Walter Thompson. Music by Franz Waxman.

RUNNING TIME: 152 minutes

DVD EDITION: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

WEB SITE: www.warnervideo.com.

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