The Nun's Story (1959)

149 or 154 mins | Drama | 4 July 1959

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HISTORY

After the opening credits, Beatrice Straight as "Mother Christophe" quotes passages from the Bible, Matthew 10:39 and 19:21, in voice-over: "'He that shall lose his life for me shall find it. If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast and give to the poor and come follow me.’” Continuing, she says, “Each sister shall understand that upon entering the convent, she has made the sacrifice of her life to God.” Although the MPH review reported that the film ran 154 minutes, NYT , Var , HR and the film's copyright record listed the running time as 149 minutes, the approximate running time of the print viewed.
       According to a Jan 1957 LAT article, Kathryn Cavarly Hulme (1900--1981), the author of the novel The Nun’s Story , met Marie-Louise Habets, the woman who would later be known in her book as “Sister Luke, Gabrielle Van der Mal” while working with World War II refugees in Europe in 1945. After the war, Hulme sponsored Habet’s immigration to the U.S., converted to Catholicism and, after a few years, wrote the former nun’s story. Contemporary sources stated that Hulme and Habets, who preferred to be known only by her fictional name, lived together in Los Angeles and later, Hawaii.
       According to a 13 Sep 1956 HR news item, Eliot Hyman’s purchase of the film rights to Hulme’s novel for as high as $125,000, depending on the success of the book sales and other conditions, was reported a week after the book was published. According to a notation in an M-G-M story file ... More Less

After the opening credits, Beatrice Straight as "Mother Christophe" quotes passages from the Bible, Matthew 10:39 and 19:21, in voice-over: "'He that shall lose his life for me shall find it. If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast and give to the poor and come follow me.’” Continuing, she says, “Each sister shall understand that upon entering the convent, she has made the sacrifice of her life to God.” Although the MPH review reported that the film ran 154 minutes, NYT , Var , HR and the film's copyright record listed the running time as 149 minutes, the approximate running time of the print viewed.
       According to a Jan 1957 LAT article, Kathryn Cavarly Hulme (1900--1981), the author of the novel The Nun’s Story , met Marie-Louise Habets, the woman who would later be known in her book as “Sister Luke, Gabrielle Van der Mal” while working with World War II refugees in Europe in 1945. After the war, Hulme sponsored Habet’s immigration to the U.S., converted to Catholicism and, after a few years, wrote the former nun’s story. Contemporary sources stated that Hulme and Habets, who preferred to be known only by her fictional name, lived together in Los Angeles and later, Hawaii.
       According to a 13 Sep 1956 HR news item, Eliot Hyman’s purchase of the film rights to Hulme’s novel for as high as $125,000, depending on the success of the book sales and other conditions, was reported a week after the book was published. According to a notation in an M-G-M story file dated Sep 1956, the sale of Hulme’s book to Hyman was arranged by Ray Stark, who was an agent at that time. A 10 Sep 1956 HR news item reported that the property was bought by Fred Zinnemann, who was “reportedly negotiating” to direct the film at Paramount.
       A 29 Sep 1956 LAEx news item reported that Jack Warner purchased the book, which the news item claimed was sought by several studios, for $250,000. According to Nov 1956 LAT and HR news items, the book, which was selected as a Book of the Month, was acquired from a Canadian firm, P.R.M. Associated Artists Productions through Hyman and Stark. Although the film was not shot until mid-1958, as early as Jan 1957, according to a LAT news item, Warner Bros. was negotiating with Audrey Hepburn to play the lead.
       Although their appearance in the film has not been confirmed, contemporary HR news items added Mitzi Roman and Grazia Marescalchi to the cast, and reported that singer Bob Anthony tested for the role of a priest. The Newsweek review stated that the film contained 108 speaking roles, seventy Italian ballerinas and a Polish princess. According to the HR review, Cornelius Dumeer, who played “Father Andre,” was an actual Congo missionary. (Dumeer’s name was erroneously listed as “Diemer” in the CBCS.)
       The onscreen credits specify that the interiors were shot at Cinecittà Studios in Rome, Italy. Warner Bros. studio notes found in the file for the film at the AMPAS Library added that the film also was shot on location in Rome, Brussels and other cities in Belgium, as well as the Belgian Congo. According to a Mar 1958 HR news item, the film was partially shot on location at Stanleyville in the Belgian Congo. An Apr 1959 LAT article reported that the film was shot at places described in Hulme’s book, among them, Rome and the national hospital in the Belgian Congo. The HR review reported that, “In Africa, the film shows a sequence actually shot among the monstrously malformed inmates of a leper colony.” In 1959, a few months after production of The Nun's Story was completed, a violent black-nationalist uprising broke out in the Congo, causing most Europeans to flee. The country became independent from Belgium in 1960 and was later renamed Zaïre. Stanleyville was renamed Kisangani.
       According to a Jun 1958 HR news item, due to the AFM musicians' strike that had been ongoing for five months, composer Franz Waxman was sent abroad to work on all phases of preparing the score, from composing to recording. The score contains no music over the end titles, because, as noted by a modern source, Zinnemann did not wish to imply by the mood of the music a judgment about Gabrielle’s decision to leave the convent.
       A Jul 1959 LAT article reporting on the film’s New York opening stated that that The Nun’s Story was “farther from Hollywood’s beaten track than anything the New York critics can remember. Not alone because the story of a nun’s life and inner struggle is rare on the screen, but even more in the way it is told.” The NYT review described the first hour of the film as “in the nature of a documentary picture of how a young woman becomes a nun.” The LAT article stated, “We come to learn the real meaning and purpose of the vows of chastity, poverty, silence and obedience which are the later guidelines of the nun in her vocation, and out in the world.” The NYT review added, “Through the mouth of a mother superior…[the film] articulates the philosophy and spiritual stress in the formation of a nun—the purposes of the rules of silence, obedience, poverty and chastity, and the point of the most difficult surrender of liberty, memories and will."
       About the film’s ending, the NYT review stated, “Mr. Zinnemann has made this off-beat drama describe a parabola of spiritual afflatus and deflation that ends in a strange sort of defeat…a woman gains but also loses her soul, spends and exhausts her devotion to an ideal she finds she cannot hold.”
       The Nun’s Story marked the feature film debut of Colleen Dewhurst. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, but lost to Ben-Hur . Hepburn and Robert Anderson were nominated for Best Actress and Best Screenplay Based on Another Medium, respectively, but lost to Simone Signoret and Neil Paterson for Room at the Top . Other nominations were: Fred Zinnemann (Best Director), Franz Planer (Best Cinematography), Walter Thompson (Best Film Editing), Franz Waxman (Best Musical Score) and George Grove (Best Sound), but all lost to Ben-Hur (see above). The Nun’s Story was shown at the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain, where it won the Grand Prix Cine Revue Award. The picture also received a Certificate of Recognition from the National Conference of Christians and Jews, according to contemporary HR news items. According to a Nov 1966 LAT news item, Hepburn stated that “Sister Luke” was her favorite movie role.

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SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
American Cinematographer
Aug 59
pp. 486-87, 499-500.
Beverly Hills Citizen
30 Jun 1957.
---
Beverly Hills Citizen News
30 Jun 1959.
---
Box Office
11 May 1959.
---
Box Office
18 May 1959.
---
Daily Variety
6 May 59
p. 3.
Film Daily
6 May 59
p. 6.
Film Daily
2 May 1960.
---
Filmfacts
15 Jul 1959
pp. 129-31.
Hollywood Citizen-News
26 Jun 1959.
---
Hollywood Reporter
10 Sep 1956
p. 4.
Hollywood Reporter
13 Sep 1956.
---
Hollywood Reporter
1 Nov 1956.
---
Hollywood Reporter
24 Jan 1958
p. 17.
Hollywood Reporter
29 Jan 1958
p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter
4 Mar 1958
p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter
12 Mar 1958
p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter
11 Apr 1958
p. 18.
Hollywood Reporter
6 Jun 1958
p. 8.
Hollywood Reporter
26 Jun 1958
p. 1.
Hollywood Reporter
27 Jun 1958
p. 11.
Hollywood Reporter
6 May 59
p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter
19 Jun 1959
p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter
10 Jul 1959
p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter
2 Mar 1960
p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter
6 Apr 1960
p. 2.
Life
8 Jun 1959.
---
Los Angeles Examiner
29 Sep 1956.
---
Los Angeles Examiner
3 Aug 1958.
---
Los Angeles Examiner
26 Jun 1959
Section 2, p. 4.
Los Angeles Times
1 Nov 1956.
---
Los Angeles Times
16 Jan 1957.
---
Los Angeles Times
12 Oct 1958.
---
Los Angeles Times
13 Apr 1959.
---
Los Angeles Times
26 Jun 1959.
---
Los Angeles Times
1 Jul 1959
Part II, p. 9.
Los Angeles Times
7 Nov 1966
Part IV, p. 22.
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest
16 May 59
p. 261.
New York Times
13 Apr 1958.
---
New York Times
19 Jun 59
p. 30.
New York Times
21 Jun 1959.
---
New York Times
13 Oct 1959.
---
New Yorker
27 Jun 1959.
---
Newsweek
29 Jun 1959.
---
Time
6 Jul 1959.
---
Variety
10 Jul 1957.
---
Variety
6 May 59
p. 6.
CAST
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
Dame Peggy Ashcroft
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PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
2d unit dir
Asst dir
PRODUCERS
WRITER
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
ART DIRECTOR
FILM EDITOR
Film ed
SET DECORATOR
COSTUMES
MUSIC
Mus comp and cond
MAKEUP
Hairstylist
PRODUCTION MISC
Prod mgr
Prod mgr for Italy
Prod mgr for Belgium and Congo
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the novel The Nun's Story by Kathryn C. Hulme (Boston, 1956).
DETAILS
Release Date:
4 July 1959
Premiere Information:
New York opening: 18 June 1959
Los Angeles opening: 25 June 1959
Production Date:
late January--late June 1958 at Cinecittà Studios, Rome
Copyright Claimant:
Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.
Copyright Date:
4 July 1959
Copyright Number:
LP16817
Physical Properties:
Sound
RCA Sound Recording
Color
Technicolor
Duration(in mins):
149 or 154
Countries:
Italy, United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
18979
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

In the 1920s, in Bruges, Brussels, Gabrielle Van der Mal is preparing to be a nun. She leaves behind her worldly goods, but decides to keep a pen given to her by her widowed father, a renowned physician. After bidding farewell to her sisters and brother, Gaby walks with her father to the convent. Dr. Van der Mal doubts that Gaby is meant to be a nun, saying that he can see her chaste and poor, but never obedient. After reminding her that the Order forbids her to ask for her most heartfelt desire, which is to be assigned to the Congo as a nurse, he tells her not to believe she has failed if she is ill-suited to convent life. Feeling certain of her vocation, Gaby serenely dismisses his misgivings. At the convent, her father points out a nun who is considered a “Living Rule,” because she personifies the rules of the Order by her exemplary behavior. After presenting Gaby’s dowry to the Order, Dr. Van der Mal tells his daughter to be happy and leaves. Gaby is disappointed to learn that she is forbidden to talk to her mentor, the nurse Sister William, for many months. Following strict rules, the postulants adapt to the sound of the bells, which call them to awaken, to chapel, to meals and to the Grand Silence, which are the hours the nuns are forbidden to talk. To develop their spiritual life, the postulants may not ask for anything on their own behalf and are strenuously tested to root out their faults. Mother Emmanuel tells them that the self-sacrificing life of a ... +


In the 1920s, in Bruges, Brussels, Gabrielle Van der Mal is preparing to be a nun. She leaves behind her worldly goods, but decides to keep a pen given to her by her widowed father, a renowned physician. After bidding farewell to her sisters and brother, Gaby walks with her father to the convent. Dr. Van der Mal doubts that Gaby is meant to be a nun, saying that he can see her chaste and poor, but never obedient. After reminding her that the Order forbids her to ask for her most heartfelt desire, which is to be assigned to the Congo as a nurse, he tells her not to believe she has failed if she is ill-suited to convent life. Feeling certain of her vocation, Gaby serenely dismisses his misgivings. At the convent, her father points out a nun who is considered a “Living Rule,” because she personifies the rules of the Order by her exemplary behavior. After presenting Gaby’s dowry to the Order, Dr. Van der Mal tells his daughter to be happy and leaves. Gaby is disappointed to learn that she is forbidden to talk to her mentor, the nurse Sister William, for many months. Following strict rules, the postulants adapt to the sound of the bells, which call them to awaken, to chapel, to meals and to the Grand Silence, which are the hours the nuns are forbidden to talk. To develop their spiritual life, the postulants may not ask for anything on their own behalf and are strenuously tested to root out their faults. Mother Emmanuel tells them that the self-sacrificing life of a nun is a life against nature. On their Day of Vesture, when they are given new names and the novice’s habit, the young women are expected to turn from memories of their past, requiring that Gaby give up the pen from her father. Henceforth, she is known as Sister Luke. After the ceremony, Gaby blushes when her hospital patients tell her she is “a beautiful nun,” and thus commits the sin of pride. By discussing her discomfort with a fellow novice, she breaks the rule of silence. New tests and penances are introduced to the novices and, once a week, they are expected to announce publicly their own faults, as well as those of others they have witnessed. Although she tries to obey, Gaby frequently breaks rules and, even when she succeeds in following the rules, feels she is sinning by taking pride in her success. After taking her vows, Gaby is sent to the School of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp. Having already been trained by her father, Gaby does well, but incites the jealousy of an older nun, who reports to Mother Marcella that Gaby is guilty of pride. Marcella suggests to Gaby that she fail her examinations to prove her humility, but soul-searching prevents Gaby from doing so. Afterward, instead of sending Gaby to the Congo, Marcella assigns her to work in a mental sanitarium. There, a dangerous schizophrenic patient nicknamed Archangel tricks Gaby into unlocking her cell without asking for assistance. After Archangel attacks her, the shamed Gaby chides herself for her prideful belief that she could handle the situation alone and confides to the sanitarium’s mother superior of her internal struggle with obedience. The nun, believing Marcella was wrong to ask Gaby to fail intentionally, suggests that she be easier on herself. After three years, Gaby takes final vows, as her family watches the ceremony. Although she is assigned to the Congo, Gaby is disappointed to learn that she will not work with the natives, but at the “white” hospital for Europeans under the supervision of the eccentric Dr. Fortunati, a bachelor and atheist described as a “genius and devil” by the nuns. The shrewd and demanding Fortunati is pleased with Gaby’s professionalism, but discerns her exhausting inner struggle. Gaby works long hours and institutes useful innovations, only to be accused by the bishop of “singularizing” herself when her successes draw attention. When a beloved priest has an accident possibly requiring amputation and there are no doctors available to treat him, Gaby saves the priest and his leg, garnering praise from Fortunati, who then jokes that she will have to confess her “sin of pride.” Later, with Fortunati, Gaby visits a leper colony served by a priest, who has dedicated himself to the lepers as a penance for past sins and is now infected himself. Back at the hospital, Gaby's nursing duties conflict with her religious obligations. Although her obligations to her religious life are supposed to take precedence, Gaby cannot sacrifice her patients’ psychological needs to the Grand Silence. As Fortunati feared, Gaby’s tension from her inner struggles combined with long hours of work take their toll and she contracts tuberculosis, a disease for which she would be required to leave the Congo. Having worked with many nursing nuns, Fortunati tells Gaby that she is a “worldly nun,” who is good for patients, but who cannot conform to the convent’s expectations. “That’s your illness,” he says, “the TB is a byproduct.” After he wryly warns her not to let the sin of pride make her confess that she correctly diagnosed her illness, he promises to cure the “byproduct” and explain it to the mother superior in a way that allows Gaby to remain. He prescribes several months of rest in isolation, where Gaby is pampered with wine and a special diet, and given a pet monkey. As she recuperates, she is at peace with herself and jokes to a fellow nun that she may never again break a rule. Wryly, the nun tells her they are talking during Grand Silence. After she returns to duty, a native man, swayed by a witch doctor’s superstitions, kills a kindly nun who hoped to convince unconverted natives to attend Christmas Eve service. Illunga, a native who assists the nuns, confides to Gaby his surprise that the nuns are not angry. After Gaby explains the nuns’ belief in forgiveness, Illunga and others come to the service. When a nurse is needed to accompany an important mental patient to Belgium, Gaby is the only person suitably trained. She fervently hopes that she will be allowed to return, but the mother superior decides to keep her there as “a good example” to the other nuns while she renews her spiritual life. From her father, who continues to worry that her life is being misspent, Gaby learns that her brother and two brothers-in-law are in the army. After Fortunati writes that her replacement “is a real nun,” the mother superior asks Gaby if she was in love with the doctor, but Gaby denies it. Although she prays for detachment from her memories, Gaby remembers Fortunati’s prediction that she would be unhappy at the motherhouse. The outbreak of World War II makes Gaby’s return to the Congo impossible. German bombing is followed by the German occupation of Belgium, but the nuns are expected to feel charity toward their enemy. In the local hospital where she is assigned, Gaby observes that a young nurse, the novice Lisa, is helping the Underground Resistance. After asking God to forgive her disobedience, Gaby offers her help. Upon learning that her father has been killed, Gaby wrestles with her conscience, finally acknowledging that she is “filled with hate.” Believing that she should no longer be a nun, Gaby asks for permission to leave the convent. When permission is denied, she threatens to leave without it. Lisa, who guesses Gaby’s decision, gives her a contact in the Underground, so that she has a place to go where her skills can be used. After convincing her superiors to put through her paperwork, Gaby is called in to sign the documents and her dowry is returned, but she is refused a last blessing by the Mother Superior. Alone, she is sent to a room, where she replaces her habit with civilian clothes and takes off the wedding ring that symbolizes her marriage to Christ. After exiting the convent, she walks away to a different life.

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Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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