Medicine in the Movies Blogathon: The Nun’s Story (1959)

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Charlene over at Charlene’s (Mostly) Classic Movie Reviews is hosting this blogathon  about all things medical. Be sure to check out all the other entries over on her site. I can’t wait to read them myself.


Audrey Hepburn as Sister Luke. Screenshot by me.

I’ve chosen to write about The Nun’s Story for this blogathon. The film is directed by Fred Zinnemann. The film is based upon the life of a real nun, called Sister Marie Louise Habets. 

In 1956, Kathryn Hulme wrote the novel The Nun’s Story based on the life of Habets, whom she was friends with. The book was adapted for the screen by Robert Anderson in 1959.

I love this film very much. It is a powerful and touching story focusing on a woman facing the biggest decision of her life. It has some very interesting characters.

I  also like it because it shows the great difficulties facing medical staff working in remote areas and less developed countries. The film also features what I consider to be Audrey Hepburn’s best ever screen performance.

I have always had an interest in how medical services are provided out in less developed countries or remote areas, this film gives you a good idea of what the reality of that provision is. As this film shows us there are often a limited number of doctors and nurses available in such places; they will often encounter a language barrier, and this will obviously cause problems when trying to give and get information from patients. In many cases there is also no access to clean water or medicines. The medical staff working in such conditions do the best they can, but they have to endure a great deal of hardship and danger themselves in order to help those in need.

Belgium, in the 1930’s; Gabrielle (Audrey Hepburn)is the daughter of the famous Doctor Van Der Mal (Dean Jagger). Gabrielle shares her father’s love for all things medical. Since she was young she has also felt drawn to the medical profession just like her father. She is conflicted though because she is deeply religious and also feels drawn to life as a nun. 

Gabrielle enters a Catholic convent and is given the name Sister Luke. She can’t wait to be able to start doing medical work as a nursing sister, but it is with a heavy heart that she accepts she will only be able to go out nursing when instructed to do so by her Mother Superior (Edith Evans).

The majority of Sister Luke’s days are filled by prayer, practicing self denial and learning to cut all emotional ties to the life she led before entering the convent. It is soon clear to us that she is greatly struggling with this new way of life. Sister Luke is eventually able to work in a local hospital and a mental asylum as a nurse helping patients. Although happy to be able to be doing this, she longs to be getting even more medically involved.

Sister Luke is later transferred out to a convent in the Congo. Under the supervision of Mother Mathilde(Peggy Ashcroft), Sister Luke begins work in a small hospital serving the local remote villages. Sister Luke becomes the surgical assistant to the cynical, headstrong, atheist surgeon, Dr. Fortunati(Peter Finch).

the nun's story

Sister Luke and Dr. Fortunati. Image source IMDb. 

Fortunati and Sister Luke soon develop a strong bond and grow very fond of each other. It soon becomes clear to the doctor how unsuited Sister Luke is to being a nun; he recognises that her heart truly lies in her medical work and that she has the necessary skills for this career.

Fortunati grows increasingly worried about her as she gets more and more worn out by the long hours spent in the hospital, and on top of that having to do work in the convent, attend regular prayers (day and night)and take communion. When she develops Tuberculosis, Sister Luke has no choice but to finally rest, and as she does so she begins thinking about just where her future lies. 

I love when Fortunati tells Sister Luke, ” I’m going to tell you something about yourself, Sister. I’ve never worked with any other kind of nurse except nuns since I began. You’re not in the mould, Sister, you never will be. You’re what’s called a worldly nun, ideal for the public and ideal for the patients. You see things your own way, you’ll never be the kind of nun that your convent expects you to be.” He sees right away what her internal conflict is and tries to help her with it. Sister Luke is stubborn and refuses to admit she might not be cut out for this way of life.

The scenes between Sister Luke and Doctor Fortunati are my favourites in the entire film. I especially love the scene where she breaks down after accidentally dropping a beaker in the medical supply room. Fortunati finds her crying and tries to comfort her, but has to keep his distance from her (despite her distress)because it wouldn’t be considered proper for him to hold her.

The Nun's story 2

Fortunati tries to comfort Sister Luke. Image source IMDb. 

Hepburn and Finch give excellent performances throughout, but they are exceptional in their shared scenes together. I also love how Finch conveys to us with just a look how much the doctor is beginning to care for Sister Luke and wants to keep her in his life.

It seems to me that this film shows us that the medical and religious way of life are quite similar in a way. Both require those in that life or career to help those in need and those who are less fortunate than themselves. The role of a doctor, nun or priest is a lifelong commitment. Both ways of life are often difficult and emotionally demanding due to what has to be dealt with and experienced, but those living that life or career continue on to try and make a difference, and they try to have a positive impact. This film shows us this and it certainly made me realise how tough life as a doctor or nurse is out in places like the Congo.  

Not all doctors operate from the safety of a well stocked hospital or doctors surgery. Many work in countries with limited resources. They risk contracting disease, being killed or injured while trying to help the injured or sick, and they usually face long hours due to limited staff.

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Sister Luke and Mother Mathilde help a local woman and her child.Image source IMDb. 

In this film we see Fortunati and Sister Luke pushed to their limits due to the long and draining hours they spend operating; they barely get any sleep and they know they have to be up early the next day to operate all over again. This is not an easy life, but it certainly is a worthwhile one.

My favourite scenes are the following. Sister Luke and her fellow novices being given their new names and having their hair cut. Fortunati diagnosing Sister Luke’s Tuberculosis. Fortunati’s speech where we see he knows exactly what her internal struggle is. Sister Luke reading a distressing letter concerning her father. Sister Luke speaking to a native woman and saying that she doesn’t understand the language, but is confident that by speaking to them daily she’ll pick it up. Fortunati kicking a medical instrument away from a native assistant who was going to hand it to him after dropping it on the floor(obviously this was now unsterile, but the assistant didn’t understand about instrument hygiene so hands it over anyway). Sister Luke crying after dropping the beaker.

The film makes us admire the strength and determination of Sister Luke. We may know long before she does that she is not suited for life in a convent; but watching her come to that realisation herself makes for very powerful viewing. She is a woman who doesn’t want to fail, she is deeply conflicted between two callings that she has and wants to try hard to succeed at both ways of life.

The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won none of them. Quite how Simone Signoret won the best actress award over Audrey is incomprehensible to me. Simone was good, but Audrey’s performance is so raw and genuine. She makes you believe she really is tired, conflicted and ill. Audrey says so much emotionally with just expressions in this. I think this is the best performance of her career and it’s a shame it wasn’t recognised. Audrey did win the BAFTA award for best actress for her performance as Sister Luke, so that’s something at least.

This film makes me thankful that we have people who are willing to sacrifice their own happiness and lives in order to save and help others.

Thank you for reading. Please share your thoughts on the film below. Never seen it? Then I highly recommend it to you.



15 thoughts on “Medicine in the Movies Blogathon: The Nun’s Story (1959)

  1. thoughtsallsorts

    I’d never heard of this movie until I saw that lovely Banner on the Blogathon announcement page and just had to ask Charlene from which movie it was. I’ve put the movie on my To Watch list (getting hold of it is another story) and combined with your lovely post, I just have to watch it. Can’t wait.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. charsmoviereviews

    This is my favourite Audrey Hepburn film. You are so right – how she did not win an Oscar for this role is incomprehensible! You really capture Sister Luke’s struggle as well as her slowly growing friendship with Dr. Fortunati quite well. As you mentioned, working as a health care professional in rural and remote areas can be quite challenging, and a lot of quick problem solving and creativity must be put to use. There are so many wonderful things to say about this most excellent film! Thanks for contributing to the blogathon 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. maddylovesherclassicfilms Post author

      Thank you so much. Thank you for having me 🙂 I find this a fascinating film, particularly in regards to Sister Luke’s internal struggle regarding whether faith or medicine is the path for her. So glad someone else agrees that Audrey should have won that Oscar! Can’t wait to read all the other entries.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. dbmoviesblog

    Such a great entry! I have known about this film for a long time, but never had a chance to see it. I should, and it is also odd for me to see Audrey in such a role, should be an interesting watch for a change.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. maddylovesherclassicfilms Post author

      Thank you so much. Her performance here proved what a good dramatic actress she was. I think it’s a real shame she never again got a part which allowed her to give such depth to a character she played. I hope you get to see it soon.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Silver Screenings

    This is an incredible film – moving and haunting. I’ve seen it only once, a few years ago, and it’s stayed with me ever since.

    I like what you said about we (the audience) knowing long before Hepburn does that she’s not cut out for this life. And when she does come to that realization, it is powerful. Hepburn’s performance is SO GOOD, and her scenes with Finch are superb.

    I didn’t realize it was nominated for 8 Oscars, and lost in all categories. Do you think it was because it’s about a nun who returns to the world, as it were?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. maddylovesherclassicfilms Post author

      Hepburn and Finch certainly are terrific in their shared scenes. I have no idea why this lost out. I am often left shaking my head in disbelief at some of the Oscar choices (both winners and losers.)Audrey should have at least got the actress Oscar.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. maddylovesherclassicfilms Post author

      Hi Le. Glad to find another fan of this film. I like your post too. I have never read the book, but have seen both versions of A Farewell To Arms. I prefer the Gary Cooper version. Must read the book someday.


  5. vinnieh

    With the film fresh in my memory, I must say your review really captured it exquisitely. The internal struggle of Soster Luke was both moving and fascinating, as was the glimpse inside a nun’s life. It’s something not many of us are likely to see, making it all the more enthralling and engaging. And Audrey Hepburn blew me away with her quiet but powerful performance.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. John

    A great and powerful film. Ben-Hur swept the Oscars that year, but there was no good reason why Hepburn could not have been honored. Then and in the posthumous tributes of later years Hepburn was constantly described as the charming and wistful “gamine” who charmed older men. True enough, but few critics bothered to acknowledge her depth in this demanding role. Even Molly Haskell’s important book on women in film somehow missed this outstanding story of an institution entirely run by women!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. maddylovesherclassicfilms Post author

      Hi John. Glad to find another fan. You’re right! Both the film and Audrey’s performance were so overlooked. This is the film that showed what a talented dramatic actress Audrey really could be. I wish she had been given more roles like this.



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