Blogathons, Page To Screen, True Story

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

Medicine in the movies blogathon.png

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

I’ve chosen to write about The Nun’s Story for this blogathon. The film is directed by Fred Zinnemann and it is based on 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, who she was friends with. The book was adapted for the screen by Robert Anderson, in 1959.

After I’d chosen to write about this film, I knew that I simply had to have Charlene’s banner (seen above) because it features a shot from this very film.

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 interesting characters. It shows the difficulties facing medical staff in remote areas/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 in remote areas. This film gives you a good idea of what the reality of that provision is.

As this film shows us, there are 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 and 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 fathers 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).

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.

Photo0099

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, 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 breaking 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. 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 he 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/career to help those in need and those who are less fortunate than themselves. The role of a doctor, a nun or priest is a lifelong commitment and you pledge yourself to it for life. Both lives are often difficult and emotionally demanding due to what has to be dealt with and experienced, but those living that life/career continue on to try and make a difference and 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 face long hours due to limited staff. 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 Sister Luke’s strength and determination. 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. Signoret 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.