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Obedience, that impossible thing: Audrey Hepburn as Sister Luke in “The Nun’s Story” (1959)

It may seem strange to choose a nun as the subject for a post written for The Reel Infatuation Blogathon. But, it is not strange when you think of the tremendous courage of both the character, based on a real woman of this marrow, and the actress who played her, who had these same traits. Sister Luke, who is based upon Marie Louise Habets, also known as Sister Xaverine, is a character who is endlessly fascinating, and her portrayal by Audrey Hepburn, who was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress, makes her even more so.

Marie Louise or Sister Luke in the film, and Audrey Hepburn had many things in common. As I said, they were both brave and wonderfully kind and selfless, and they both lived through one of the darkest period in history, WWII, when it felt as if the world would end and only ash would remain. Both Marie Louise and Audrey lost those they loved during the war, Marie Louise her father, Audrey her half brother. They were both witnesses to the monstrosities committed by the Germans, they lived through the onslaught; and both of them survived it, those years forever entrenched in their lives. They would do much good during and after the war, continuing to give their lives selflessly for the cause of others. They were people who lived for others.

In the film, Sister Luke’s struggle with obedience is a main theme. She tries to do as God wishes her to, but it is her pride that seems to always stop her from complying. Eventually, however, it becomes clear that it is not pride, but a core sense of duty to what is right and fair, which the church has lost sight of, that has caused this terrible battle in her. A key example of this is when she is asked to fail an exam so that another nun, who is less competent in studying diseases, can have a much desired post in the Congo; and when she can not reconcile herself to the Church’s decision to remain neutral during the war, despite the senseless killing that is being enacted by the Nazis.

“We saw young men put against the wall and shot, and they’d close the street and then open it, and you could pass by again… Don’t discount anything awful you hear or read about the Nazis. It’s worse than you could ever imagine.”[9]

—Hepburn on the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands

Marie Louise, upon leaving the church after almost twenty years, felt a deep sense of depression and failure. But it is made clear at the end of the film that her actions are ones that are utterly unavoidable. The Church has asked her to give up every part of herself in order to fulfil her vows to God, but it seems almost ludicrous that she can continue on this past when her father, a good, giving doctor, is murdered by the Germans whilst trying to help refugees. It may seem simple, surely one cannot be expected to be only a vessel for God and forgive those who have murdered the one you love most of all? Or how can you commit yourself to this route and turn away from it when you are instructed by God’s representatives on Earth not to do so. The Nun’s Story leaves which stance to take to the audience, but it does not do so easily. Like Sister Luke, the audience is left with an inner battle, making them realise how heart shattering it is for her when she steps out of that door, into the world outside, with nothing in the world, except for her desire to join the Belgian Resistance, which is probably a suicidal choice.

Audrey Hepburn’s performance in this film is truly something to behold. Gone is the childlike smile of Sabrina and Love In the Afternoon, nowhere is the stylish “society girl” of Breakfast At Tiffany’s. This is my favourite role of Audrey’s because this is the one in which I can see her true greatness, her versatility, the very light of her soul. This is the role I draw people’s attention to when they seek to denigrate or disregard her talents and legacy. It is this role in which we see the little Dutch girl, who saw all those things that would have hardened or driven anyone else mad, the girl who survived starvation because she wanted to and had to live. 

Audrey’s face in this film is a wonder. Her expressions are like crystal: displaying every emotion, without need of words, but so beautifully, not at all overworked or seemingly practiced. Audrey, I always feel, never acted, she always just was. As Sister Luke, this is especially true. She does not merely play the part of Sister Luke, she does not mime the turmoil, the exhaustion, the physical and emotional strain of the constant service of religious life, of dreams and desires forbidden, but still kept, shattered due to a needless war. In every action, look and word she inhabits all these things, As I said, Audrey had an intimate understanding of the role, and this is especially clear in her scenes in the Congo alongside Peter Finch. I so wish they had made another movie together, as they match each other so splendidly. Sister Luke and Audrey’s constrained but passionate nature and portrayal, in contrast to the sheer force of Finch’s performance and his character’s brash actions. And that is what is so impressive: not for a moment are Sister Luke or Audrey subsumed by Dr Fortunati or Finch, but find a perfect balance to them.

This is not a “pretty” film. It shows the sheer force of will, the devotion and sacrifice required for religious life. It shows the terrible hardships of trying to practice medicine and be not only a devotee to God, but his servant, his earthly vessel. It shows the crude conditions in Africa, the need for more help in treatment of a people who were cut down and put down by colonial powers, who contracted foreign diseases, such as leprosy and tuberculosis, and the sacrifice of those who sought to treat these diseases, even if it killed them.

There is no prettiness in the murder of a nun, the painful misunderstanding of cultural differences. This is a film about life, told through the story of a woman who lived so much without any easy reprieve from self effacement.

This is why I love Sister Luke/ Marie Louise and Audrey. They are women are tangible goodness, all the things that give you hope in a world that is often painful to live in. They are our beacons. They are the ones that are brave and strong and true. If there is a God, he did indeed touch them, and through them, we can see something of that touch.

This is my contribution to The Reel Infatuation Blogathon being hosted by Font and Frock and Silver Screenings. Please visit their blogs for more info and to read everyone’s posts.

9 thoughts on “Obedience, that impossible thing: Audrey Hepburn as Sister Luke in “The Nun’s Story” (1959)”

  1. Beautifully said. This film shows Audrey Hepburn’s depth and acting talent. She makes us feel her inner struggle – to stay with the church or to leave and do good elsewhere? Like you said, gone is the ingenue of earlier roles. This one is meaty and serious.

    I like what you said about her pairing with Peter Finch. It is a shame they didn’t make other films – they have great chemistry.

    Thanks for joining the blogathon and for sharing your insights on “The Nun’s Story”. It’s a film that deserves more attention than it receives these days.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. No one could be unmoved by The Nun’s Story, and your in-depth look at the real-life struggles portrayed so beautifully and lived so heartbreakingly is equally moving.

    – Caftan Woman

    Liked by 1 person

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