Directed by Fred Zinneman
Written by Robert Anderson, based upon the novel by Kathryn C. Hulme
Starring Audrey Hepburn, Peter Finch, Dame Edith Evans, Dame Peggy Ashcroft, and Dean Jagger
Over the course of film history we recognize dozens of genres and spilled copious volumes of words over them. By way of example there are noirs, musicals, war films, monster films, gangster films, westerns, spaghetti westerns, horror, Italian horror and…and the list goes on and on. There’s so many different genres it’s understandable when one slips through the cracks, especially when they aren’t exactly fashionable. Which is how Biblical films can feel like the forgotten step-child of genre cinema to most cinephiles, even as it was one of the original film genres.
Ben-Hur was first produced in 1907 as a one-reeler, remade in 1925 with Ramon Novarro and remade again in 1959. H.B. Warner, better known as Mr. Gower the druggist in It’s A Wonderful Life played Jesus in the silent version of The King of Kings. And Carl Theodor Dreyers 1928 film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, might still be the granddaddy of all religious/Biblical films, with Renee Jeanne Falconetti giving the performance to end all performances.
It’s probably wise to take a second and say that when I talk about Biblical films, I mean those films made by Hollywood studios, with Hollywood players, that are overtly Biblical/Religious. Films that carry the slick air of professionalism. What I do not mean are films in the vein of Spencer Williams The Blood of Jesus, which often feel amateurish and more like outsider art than anything else, even as they carry a strong religious message.
Perhaps the reason we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about Biblical films these days is the Bible film fad didn’t really play out the way others had. Where other genres were really meant to be B-pictures and produced on the cheap – in other words, they were explicitly genre pictures – Biblical films were not of that mold. They were never made in bulk, or to be repeatable, or disposable.
They were only ever made to be good.
And so, while noirs and westerns might recycle plots or props or actors, Biblical films were always made on a grand scale, with an eye toward prestige, making them a rare thing. And so, even though you have a wave of them in the 1950s and 60s, with Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments, The Robe all being nommed for Best Picture and doing big business, they were a small, discreet wave. Plus, they were never made on a budget, which meant if one failed the whole enterprise might collapse. So, when George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told starred Max Von Sydow as Jesus and failed to come close to making back it’s at-the-time massive $20 million budget, the end of the Hollywood Bible film was near. Sure, there might be one or two more to escape over the coming years – Jesus Christ Superstar did really well – but it wasn’t until Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ that anybody tried one again on the same scale. And then, he did that with his own money, not studio money.
Perhaps the reason Biblical films never really coalesced into a proper genre has to do with the intense earnestness of the subject – audiences get quickly tire of earnestness, especially when it comes across as lecturing, which can be the films stock-in-trade. Perhaps the reason is that aside from obligatory nods toward the presence of God, and at least vaguely crypto-Christian values, there were no unifying tropes.
Unlike westerns, which could be built around a gunfight between a black hat and a white hat, or noirs that were populated with double-crosses and anti-heroes and femme fatales, there were no common elements bringing Biblical films together. Say what you will about tropes being overused, but tropes allow a certain austerity to the budget, they allow a shorthand between maker and consumer that renders then easily repeatable. And when they are made on a budget, films have a much easier time making a profit.
But, while the lack of unifying tropes might be what eventually killed the genre, it’s also why the Biblical film as a genre is most varied, and how you can wind up with The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur rubbing shoulders with the likes of The Bells of St. Mary’s and The Sound of Music.
And also, The Nun’s Story.
What’s It About?
A young Belgian (Hepburn) joins a convent, intent on doing missionary work in the Belgian Congo. Over a series of episodes we follow her through her religious training, her initial postings, her exposure to true poverty and illness in Africa, and finally her return to Europe on the verge of WWII. Through it all she’s defiant and headstrong – relatively speaking – and eventually the clash between her own conception of faith and charity, and that of her convent, forces her to quit her vows in order to serve as she believes God intended her to serve.
Is It Any Good?
It’s not bad. And if you want me to further damn The Nun’s Story with faint praise, it’s also competent. It does not rise to the level of art, but does not wallow in failure. So, in the bell-curve of film quality, it’s somewhere in the great big hump in the middle, with most of the rest of them.
But in saying this, it’s not merely damning the film with faint praise, it’s giving the film the kiss of death with faint praise. After all, both extraordinarily good, and extraordinarily bad, films are worth seeing just for the spectacle of it. After all, a car crash of a film is just as awe-inspiring as anything else. But when a film is merely a shoulder-shrug it might as well not even exist.
And in the end, that’s what can be said for The Nun’s Story – it’s competent, in the most competent way.
And that competence – as opposed to art – is stamped on the film right at the beginning. At the jump we join the nun-to-be (Hepburn) as she’s packing to leave home, then is walked to the convent by her father (Jagger). Rather than have their conversation be played in the shorthand that families have with one another, as they say their goodbyes, maybe for years, their conversation is a massive exposition dump. In the broadest, most-obvious strokes, we get who these people are, what they want and where they’re going. Sure, Hepburn and Jagger are compelling actors and do their best to out-sensitive one another and sell the material, but no matter how hard they try, they’re conversation is the peak of artlessness.
Mercifully, once Hepburn is in the convent the exposition of the film comes to an end and instead we get information in dribs and drabs, and for a while the film nods towards art. We get tastes of Hepburn’s life, doled out sparingly, so we share her confusion and fears, so as to make us stand in her shoes. It’s all very effective and ingratiating, until it goes on and on and on, hitting us over the head time and again with lessons on humility and service and the like. In a lot of ways, the characters confusion makes the story propulsive, in that the hope of a resolution to the confusion is what pulls us forward. Except, when the confusion is continually unsatisfied, it morphs into frustration, which negates the ultimate purpose of the storytelling. Which means that, where we might otherwise be moved by the outcome, we’re just relieved it’s finally over.
What’s sad is there is a better movie hidden inside the one we have, it’s just that the talents used to tell it were marshalled in the wrong way. Which is certainly the doing of director Fred Zinnemann. Look, Zinnemann was a talented man, helmer of many classic films, but unlike the exceptional direction he brought to High Noon, Sleuth and The Day of the Jackal, much of this film feels unexceptional. Certainly, even as I say this I know I’m being hyperbolic, and his direction isn’t terrible, it’s also not very good. For a man of his talents, being unexceptional is failure.
By now my regular readers have picked up on my predilection for watching the films in this series and singling out small things that struck me – details or performances – for praise. This entry is no different. Here, the small, praiseworthy performance comes from Beatrice Straight. Best known to my generation as one of the paranormal researchers in 1982’s Poltergeist, she’s really quite lovely here as one of the mother-nuns Hepburn encounters. Until Straight joined the film, all other mother-nuns were taciturn and severe. They just did not seem to care about what they were doing, or who they were helping. They only seemed mean. Straight, on the other hand, blows in on a wind of empathy, and in a movie where empathy often manifests as pitilessness, she is a breath of fresh air. Too often we can be dismissive of entire films where romantic leads lack chemistry, acknowledging that some emotions are hard to fake. Just as difficult as romantic chemistry is being able to show genuine empathy that doesn’t read as condescending or superior. So when Straight turns up and gives effortless empathy, it’s quite moving. It’s only too bad this sort of performance is often overlooked by the Oscars in favor of bigger, showier roles. Such as the histrionics Straight displayed in Network, which did win her an Oscar.
Peter Finch is also a welcome addition to the film, especially given that leading into his appearance the narrative had begun to sag to the extent I started clock-watching. That said, when he swaggers in, he commands attention. And not with the swagger of John Wayne, with all the machismo of a crotch-first he-man. No, it is the intellectual swagger of a man content in knowing he’s the better of you in most every way. Certainly, Finch is aided by the fact that until he shows up there’s hardly a man in sight – Jagger notwithstanding – and he brings with him a hint of sexual tension the film sorely needed. Still, there could be more of him, and there isn’t.
Dean Jagger, as Hepburn’s father, is wasted. Frankly, the role is an insult to his talents. For crying out loud, the man’s an Oscar winner and here he’s used mainly as an exposition dump to open the film, followed by various shots of him looking on wistfully at Hepburn, only to ghost from the film altogether near the midsection, ultimately dying off-screen. Curiously, while he physically disappears from the movie, his voice is used to dub one of the other actors in the Africa section. So those with sharp ears will certainly hear him again, even if you don’t see him.
Hepburn is fine, but unexceptional. Like the film, she is competent. She is earnest, and that’s about it. If there is anything to be singled out from her performance it’s just how tired she’s allowed to look. In other films all signs of fatigue on the leading lady would be covered over with makeup and treated as non-existent – because they want her to be a beautiful above all else. But here the exhaustion is on full display and she seems genuinely worn out, especially around the eyes. If her role is groundbreaking in any way, it’s in this.
To be fair, Hepburn does excel at the chaste love story between her and Finch and proves quite skilled at conveying love with nothing more than discreet looks and respect. And just as she played it in Roman Holiday, and would later play a version of it in Breakfast At Tiffany’s, she does the hands-off romance here without even batting an eye.
But if there’s one revolutionary thing to take from the film, it’s that this is a story entirely about a woman’s journey. It’s an epic about her. And not in how she was somebody’s wife, or needed romance, or motherhood to fulfill her. No, it’s a movie that’s entirely, selfishly, about her and is as close to a feminist film as we might ever see in the 1950s. Especially one that’s a major Hollywood production.
One Perfect Shot
For all the criticism I give Zinnemann’s direction, he does manage to end the film perfectly.
At films end, Hepburn has made up her mind to leave the convent. It’s been a long time coming and we expect it when it happens. Still, it’s a wrenching decision that leads to a short, private ceremony of her essentially signing out of the convent. After the ceremony, she’s sent to a room to remove her nun’s clothing and to dress again in the clothes she came into the convent with, which also magically still fit her even as more-than a decade has passed – after seeing her for two hours in nothing but her habit and other nun attire, it’s a bit of a shock to see her hair again. From there she’s to leave directly through a door that exits right out of the building.
So, after dressing she opens the door and lets it hang open while she walks outside into an alley and down towards the street away from camera, where she finally turns, rounds a corner of a building and is gone. Rather than follow her, or zoom, or in any way track her, the camera just sits and watches through the open door. Then it fades to black.
In that one shot we get everything about what this film is meant to convey. The fear, the hope, the freedom, the release. And even as the rest of the film struggles to match it, at least in that one moment is does achieve perfection.
Better Than Best
Oscars 1959 was all about Ben-Hur. It was massive, it was Biblical, and sucked up all the air in the room. Such was it’s domination that from 12 nominations it won 11, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Charlton Heston. And if I’m honest, of these two films – Ben-Hur and The Nun’s Story – Ben-Hur is the one I’d watch, mostly thanks to Charlton Heston.
Look, Heston is a divisive figure for a lot of reasons. Politically, sure, but also as an actor. Some people hate that square-jawed, chin-forward thing he does, but I love it. I love him in Planet of the Apes. He’s marvelous in Will Penny. I think he’s silly-fun in The Omega Man. He’s exceptional in The Big Country. For me, watching him Heston all over the place is about as good as it gets, even in a film as bloated, and silly, as Ben-Hur.
Better, that film is so overt in gay subtext it’s practically text, and I get a good laugh watching it and being amazed how nobody ever picked up on the fact that the film is really a romance between Ben-Hur and Massala until Gore Vidal finally pointed it out 30 years later.
In other words, I enjoy the film for all the wrong reasons.
If there’s on 1959 film I enjoy for all the right reasons, there’s North By Northwest, one of my absolute favorite Hitchcock films. Elsewhere in 1959 was Some Like It Hot, Wild Strawberries, and The 400 Blows.
Peter Finch is second-billed here, despite appearing on-screen less than 45 minutes. Beatrice Straight is billed lower than that, her credit relegated to a group card with six or so others. However, her screen time is at least commensurate with her billing. I suspect Peter Finch’s billing had something to do with already being a star in England and being Olivier’s protégé. I suspect Straight’s billing had to do with the fact that she was mostly a theater and television actress.
Why is this important?
Almost 20 years later Peter Finch and Beatrice Straight would win Oscars for their performances in Network. Finch would win his Best Actor Oscar posthumously, dropping dead just a handful of days after the nominations were announced, which almost certainly guaranteed the win. Beatrice Straight would win Best Supporting Actress for a performance of less than 5 and a half minutes, the shortest Oscar-winning role in history. In that way, they both made trivia.
Also of note is they shared no scenes together in either film.
Colleen Dewhurst makes her film debut in a tiny role as the Archangel Gabriel.
I’m Not Touching This
Because this film sets a large chunk of its running time in the Belgian Congo there are certainly racial issues all over the place, particularly with respect to the subtext of white colonization and civilizing the ‘savages.’ Another, well-equipped critic would unpack all of this and really have something trenchant to say on it, and I hope they do. Unfortunately, that person is not me. So under the circumstances you’ll all have to make do with me noting the icky racial issues in the film, endemic to films made at that time, and endemic to stories set when the film takes place, and leave it at that.
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.
 To be fair, The Passion of Joan of Arc was not a Hollywood film, even though it was produced as a European equivalent of a studio film.
 Even though Williams’ film is rough around the edges, I advise seeking it out and seeing it, because it’s fascinating. Besides, at just around 57 minutes long, you’re not giving it a lot of time. Last I checked, you could find the film available on Youtube.
 You can’t even count on the presence of Jesus in the films. See e.g. The Ten Commandments.
 By ‘budget’ I mean cheap.
 For more on that, check out The Celluloid Closet.