Saturday, January 30, 2010

THE NUN'S STORY (W.B. 1959) Warner Home Video

Based on Kathryn Hulme's probing novel, director Fred Zinnemann's The Nun's Story (1959) is an unapologetic social critique of the structure and strictures placed upon young novices as they commit their lives in service to God. Robert Anderson's screenplay strips bare the filmic piety of devotion to Catholicism (made poignantly attractive in films like Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary's) to, instead, devote much of the film's 152 minutes toward an investigation of the inward perplexities associated with becoming a nun.

The fact that the story's heroine, Gabrielle Van der Mal is a young woman of impeccable breeding and background above reproach - and thereby an ideal candidate - yet, cannot measure up to that level of expectation in obedience, chastity and poverty - strikes a particularly devastating chord for the Catholic church. After all, if such an extraordinary creature as Gabrielle cannot attain inner perfection of the Holy Rule, what hope is there for the lesser of us?

Our story opens with Gabrielle (Audrey Hepburn) leaving her idyllic family life to join a convent in Rotterdam, Holland. It is Gabrielle's hope that the sisterhood will assign her to missionary work in the Belgian Congo upon receiving her vows. Gabrielle's father, Dr. Van der Mal (Dean Jagger) urges Gabrielle to reconsider her chosen path. At home with him she has the love, support and devotion of two sisters, a brother and a fiancée. Still, Gabrielle is certain that the nunnery is her life's destiny.

She is sequestered along with other hopefuls and put to task under the most rigid of conditions and house rules. A proper nun - so we are told - can never look at herself in a mirror. She does not form 'attachments' (friendships) with fellow novices. She obeys without question any and all requests from her superiors. She does not speak unless she is spoken to and she resigns herself to forget every last fact and memory about her past. A little black diary is given to each novice into which she must daily 'accuse' herself in writing of each impure thought. The Holy Rule is supposed to attain a sense of higher purpose for the novice, to help repress a sense of self and to smite vanity in all its forms. Yet, the film suggests its crippling effect on the humanity of our very souls instead.

Rechristened Sister Luke, Gabrielle dedicates herself to the cause with great passion, yet oddly, with a constant self doubt that her studies are being sabotaged by her pride. Sister Margharita, the Mistress of Postulants (Mildred Dunnock) is Gabrielle's greatest proponent. It is through Sister Margharita's constant encouragement that Gabrielle finds the strength to pursue her studies, even as some of the other novices recognize that the life of a nun is not for them and drop out.

However, at the hospital where Gabrielle is stationed to care for the sick as well as train in her medical duties, a fellow novice accuses Gabrielle of pride in her superior mastery of medicine. The accusation reaches the ears of their superior, Mother Marcella (Ruth White) who all but demands that Gabrielle deliberately fail her final examination.

However, it is essential that Gabrielle pass the medical portion to be considered for assignment in the Congo. As Mother Marcella encourages, failure will prove to the rest of the novices that Gabrielle is willing to sacrifice her own personal goals to attain a higher sense of selflessness. Yet, for Gabrielle, the whole purpose in becoming a nun was to administer her medical training to the less fortunate in the Congo.

Defying Mother Marcella, Gabrielle comes in fourth from the top of her class during the oral medical examination. As punishment, she is re-assigned to care for the criminally insane in a sanitarium and is nearly murdered by one of its occupants who refers to herself as the Archangel (Colleen Dewhurst).

Eventually, Gabrielle does make it to the Congo, but here too her aspirations to care for native inhabitants is dashed by the Catholic Archdiocese when she is instead assigned to the white hospital presided over by Dr. Fortunati (Peter Finch); a no-nonsense surgeon who comes to greatly admire Gabrielle for her medical prowess. Dr. Fortunati even goes so far as to conceal Gabrielle's bout of tuberculosis from the church in order to heal her himself while keeping her close at hand as his medical assistant.

After the local Chaplain, Father Andre (Stephen Murray) is injured in a bicycle accident, Gabrielle manages to reset his crushed bones without Fortunati's aid and save Father Andre's leg. This noble deed earns Gabrielle the respect of the entire congregation - yet, ironically she is 'punished' once again for her pride of workmanship by being recalled to convent life in Rotterdam.

Once home, Gabrielle learns that her father has been mercilessly gunned down with other refugees by the Nazi army. Realizing that she can never endure a life of servitude where her innate skills as a medical nurse are undervalued, Gabrielle declares that she has decided to leave the nunnery once and for all. After signing her declaration, she is quietly and rather unceremoniously cast out of the convent and into a rather bleak and uncertain future.

Thus ends The Nun's Story on a shockingly ambiguous note. The film is immeasurably blessed by Audrey Hepburn's poignantly understated central performance. There is real chemistry between Hepburn and Finch in the briefest of scenes they share together and one rather hopes for more to come. This, however, never happens, leaving Hepburn alone to carry the episodic vignettes to their inevitable conclusion. To her credit as an actress, the story - without much interaction between Gabrielle and anyone else - nevertheless holds our attention.

The Nun's Story is hardly perfect entertainment. The first act of Anderson's screenplay tends to drag on. We are given almost a daily blow by blow of oppressive convent life, while in the last two acts, featuring Gabrielle's journey to the Congo and return to Rotterdam during WWII are dealt with short shrift and rather episodically. Still, this is an engaging tale and one told with such professionalism and 'pride' or workmanship, that one cannot help but admire the exercise for its precision and polish.

Warner Home Video's DVD release could use a little more of both precision and polish. Despite being photographed in Technicolor, the transfer on The Nun's Story suffers from inconsistently rendered colors, pasty flesh tones and a considerable amount of age related artifacts. At times the image can appear quite rich, colorful and textured. However, many scenes possess a muddiness and faded palette of hues, coupled with a soft focus that renders fine details moot. The audio is mono as originally recorded and adequate for this presentation. Ironically, given that the film earned 8 Oscar nominations upon its release, extras on this DVD are regrettably limited to only a theatrical trailer - a disappointment!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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