Nuns in the Movies by Patricia Lawler Kenet Of all the movie genres and subgenres—Western, Road Trip, Thriller

, Costume Drama—nothing arouses a Catholic cineaste’s passion more than a nun movie. What better way to expiate years of being excoriated by women in black than to sit in a dark theatre and watch as they wrestle demons, commit infanticide, and flirt with Elvis? The range of films featuring nuns cuts a broad swath—uplifting musicals, romantic comedies, and unsettling dramas rife with orgies and murder. Regardless of the style, all of the movies attempt to answer the question: what’s happening under that habit, within the wall of that convent, beyond the purview of the rest of the world? Nun films literally lift and veil and tell us. One of the most sensational and well regarded of such films, nominated in 1959 for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, was, Nun Story with Audrey Hepburn. The movie provides a cinematic template for the dramatic nun film— ambivalent novice, exotic location, historical setting with the helpful but irascible town hottie to lay on some sizzle. In “Nun Story” the hunk is Peter Finch playing a doctor who gets to examine the already high-strung Sister Luke. What Catholic girl did not whisper, “resist him” as Dr. Fortunati’s (Peter Finch) thick but expert fingers

osculated Sister Luke’s sparrow-sized back? What Catholic girl couldn’t help wondering what would happen if she didn’t? Resist she does. Hollywood at that time wouldn’t have it any other way. For decades, the nuns could not be led into temptation until finally in 1971, nothing short of hell broke loose. Up until then, sexual tension was intimated, or at least resolved safely by the nun’s decision to leave the convent and get married. In Heaven Knows Mr. Allison (1957) directed by John Houston, Robert Mitchum, a Marine Corporal, finds himself shipwrecked on a Pacific Island during World War II. He meets Sister Angela played by Deborah Kerr who is now alone after the death of her vicar. To hide from the Japanese, the nun and soldier must live in a cave until their rescue. The unlikely couple survive physical harm, but circumstances test their moral strength and the weakness of the flesh. In the end, Mitchum’s bedroom eyes and stubbly beard are no match for the nun’s vows of chastity. Nun movies like Mr. Allison present a love triangle with which the third party is hard to compete —Jesus Christ himself as lover and bridegroom. This was not the first time Deborah Kerr donned the habit of sisterhood. Ten years before Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison she starred in Black Narcissus (1947) as Sister Clodagh. This British film directed by Michael Powell and Emeril Pressburger is the mother superior of nuns gone insane—


and sets the tone for films on the subject several decades later. Sister Clodagh, a woman with a tragic romantic past, is sent to supervise a group of nuns in a castle atop the Himalayan Mountains. Just a few months in an isolated convent thousands of feet above sea level push them all over the edge in one way or another. The air is thin, the muraled walls suggest an erotic past, and the natives, oblivious to the strictures of Christian conventions, embrace earthly pleasures. Each nun begins losing herself in the lure of hedonism. Sister Phillippa, played by Flora Robson, plants flowers instead of much needed vegetables. Sister Clodagh, while trying to pray, revels in the fantasies of the secular life—replete with emerald necklaces and a rich boyfriend. Like The Nun Story and Heaven Knows, a swarthy man interjects himself in the convent. Mr. Dean, played by David Farrar, appears shortly after Sister Clodagh arrives at the nunnery. He is a necessary, but coarse agent for the British government. Cocksure, bemused at the nuns’ holy life and certain that the sisters won’t survive, he remarks, “I’ll give you to the next rain,” as they shake the dust off their new abode. In his frayed hat, rolled up shorts, and unbuttoned shirt, Mr. Dean, incites the desire of Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) who eventually goes mad. After a string of tragic events, the nuns leave their strange and beautiful castle, shaken and changed.


Powell and Pressburger stepped over the line in Black Narcissus. Contemporaneous American nun films such as Come to the Stable (1949) with Loretta Young and The Bells of St. Mary (1945) with Ingrid Bergman stayed within safe parameters, creating charming and peaceful sisters serving God and community with little internal conflict. Were real American or English nuns like any of the ones in these films? In the 1960’s American directors began to portray nuns in a way that tested a Catholic girl’s version of reality—singing, carefree and hip. The Sound of Music (1965) surpasses all nun movies in terms of box office and critical success. It was nominated for and won five Academy Awards. Purists may argue that this film is not a nun movie at all because at least half of the action takes place after Julie Andrews decides to leave her veil and habit behind. But others can argue that her ambivalence about whether to marry the dashing but stern Captain Von Trapp played by Christopher Plummer or to return to the cloistered nunnery is a pivotal source of dramatic tension. The Sound of Music takes a nun’s desire one step forward from earlier nuns movies. Maria returns to the convent and confesses her feelings for the Captain to Reverend Mother. Reverend Mother tells Maria, “The love of a man and woman is holy too. My daughter, if you


love this man, it doesn’t mean you love God less. These walls were not built to shut out our problems.” The advice supplies Maria with a sexual hall pass and gives the Catholic audience permission to root for the romance. Maria, who has never been fully admitted into the nun club, can pursue a man— without betraying her vows. Once the lovers can finally confess their feelings to each other, they burst into Rodger and Hammerstein’s, “I Must Have Done Something Good” as if to sanctify the holy lovemaking to come. Perhaps more than a love story, The Sound of Music introduces cinematic nuns as musicians and performers paving the way for The Singing Nun (1965) starring Debbie Reynolds as Sister Ann. While the film based, on a true story, pales musically and dramatically with The Sound of Music it buttresses the image of nuns as groovy women with rhythm, capable of relating to the modern world around them. Chadd Everett plays the ever-present out-of-reach romantic figure. Were the male leads in nun movies always irresistible? Robert Mitchum, maybe, Peter Finch, possibly, but Elvis? This was the dilemma faced by Mary Tyler Moore in A Change of Habit (1969.) Sister Michelle is sent to work along with several other novices as an incognito nun in a poverty clinic. It’s there that she meets Elvis in the role of inner city


physician, Dr. John Carpenter. There’s a lot of flirting, especially because the doctor doesn’t know he’s hitting on a nun. But the movie is charged more with social consciousness than erotic longings. Still the questions remain: Will she? Won’t she? Would it be spoiling the surprise to say that the movie ends in a freeze frame filled with ambiguity? It’s not the absolute, “No” of earlier nun films, but it’s not, “Yes” either. Along a different tack in the 1960’s, The Trouble With Angels (1968) gave moviegoers swimming nuns, nuns shopping for bras, and otherwise keeping up with a pack of teenage girls bent on causing havoc at St. Francis Academy for Girls. Rosalind Russell as Reverend Mother portrays a strict but loving supervisor—with no signs of seething repression or guilt and no potential lover in sight. Here were nuns with a sense of humor, intimately in touch with burgeoning womanhood—willing to understand the challenges of living in the real world. Its sequel, Where Angels Go Trouble Follows in 1968 takes it characters on a road trip to a youth peace rally with a myriad of hijinks. Between1968 and 1971, a radical change took place. No amount of guitar strumming and politically active nuns could prepare the world for the sexual excess and depravity of British director Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971). Its 111 minutes of 17th Century Ursiline nuns on a sexual rampage


unwound the coiled-up kinks of nun movies from the past thirty years. If Black Narcissus opened the door, The Devils unleashed the floodgates. Religious devotion becomes sexual hysteria; sexual desire loses all romantic illusion; and violence moves beyond cold-bloodedness into amoral degradation. Oliver Reed, in what he and film scholars consider to be the best role of his career, plays Urbain Grandier, a priest who opposes Cardinal Richeleau’s efforts to restore London to the Catholic Church’s authority. Because of that, Richeleau sets out to destroy Grandier. Politically enlightened, but sexually voracious, Grandier falls prey to the machinations of a corrupt system. Vanessa Redgrave stars as Mother Jeanne whose sexual obsession with Grandier gives Richeleau the ammunition he needs for the accusations against Grandier as a warlock. Under the pretext of religious righteousness, Richeleau orders Grandier burned at the stake. One of the most controversial scenes involved nuns masturbating while Reed descends from a crucifix. The subject matter, even under today’s standards, overwhelms. The fact that Russell converted to Catholicism in 1957 and then made this film may seem shocking, but to others, understandable, considering how a nun,


for many Catholics, suggests repression, secret liaisons with priests, and highly charged ritual. In stark contrast to The Devils American filmmakers gave audiences Two Mules for Sister Sarah (1970), a lighthearted cowboy movie involving a prostitute disguised as a nun (Shirley MacLaine) who fools Clint Eastwood into saving her from three cowboys in pursuit of her. The film tricks audiences into thinking that a nun could be feisty and foul-mouthed. But the surprise ending reveals that the assumptions are misplaced. Nuns don’t behave that way in the U.S. Agnes of God (1985) based on the Tony-award winning play by John Peilmeirer shines an investigative light into a convent where a newborn is found dead, strangled by his own umbilical cord. Meg Tilly plays Sister Agnes who becomes pregnant and delivers the baby in her room, all of which is claimed to have been unnoticed by the Mother Miriam Ruth (Ann Bancroft). Denials, accusations and an investigation by an aggressive forensic psychiatrist finally result in a confession from Sister Agnes: I stood in the window of my room every night for a week. And one night I heard the most beautiful voice imaginable. And when I looked I saw the moon shining down on him. For six nights he sang to me, songs I'd never

heard. And on the seventh night he opened his wings and lay on top of me. The cinematic thrust in Agnes of God re-imagines a nun as victim and victimizer. Neither beatified nor overtly sexual, she is instead a cunning child—abused by her own mother and controlled and protected by the Mother Superior. Is she raped, or seduced, or the seducer herself? Mother Superior even suggests that the birth may be a miracle. “Agnes of God” examines the dynamic between the psychological and the religious, and the extent each of its followers will go to advocate her position. It is perhaps the first time a film maker asks its audience to appreciate a nun as a product of her past, her circumstances, and her sometimes fragile state of mind. It is one of the first American movies about nuns that do not rely upon sentimentality or broad humor. . In 1995, a true story written by a nun was made into the film Dead Man Walking starring Sean Penn as death row inmate Matthew Poncelot and Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen Prejean. Stripped of sentimentality, hysteria or sexual undertones, Dead Man Walking tells the story of a nun’s fight against capital punishment. The film is driven by Sister Prejean’s emotional journey between the perspective of the victim and killer. While the issue of capital punishment


becomes the foremost theme, Sister Prejean elevates the image of nuns to something not seen before—a nun with a sense of herself. In an exchange between the two main characters, Sister Prejean convinces audiences that nuns are more than simple servants. Sister Helen Prejean: Show me some respect, Matthew. Matthew Poncelet: Why? 'Cause you're a nun? Sister Helen Prejean: Because I'm a person. Both the secular and religious world praised the film. Director Tim Robbins was nominated for an Oscar for Best Director and Susan Sarandon won Best Actress. The film was also honored by several Catholic film organizations. Dead Man Walking demonstrates that a solid story and first-rate acting can create a mature emotional response to a nun— as human, conflicted and steeped in conviction about something more than God alone. Catholics who attended parochial school in the 1950’s and 60’s would have loved to have Sister Prejean around. If she could forgive a man like Poncelot, imagine the sympathy she would have for a student who forgot to move a decimal point. Holy nuns, haunted nuns, sexy nuns, singing nuns, political nuns—but what about the ones so many Catholics encountered in parochial school. The ones who slammed them with rulers, and locked them in the coat closet.


Those kind finally reared their heads in The Magdalene Sisters (2002) set in 1964 Ireland. The film portrays a group of nuns’ extreme brutality and sadism against young women in a prison-like laundry facility. Of course, the torture in The Magdalene Sisters was extreme, but many forty and fifty yearold Catholics felt that after forty-five years of nun movies, finally one spoke to the survivors of parochial school abuse. In one scene, one of chief tormenters begins to cry as she watches The Bells of St. Mary’s. Is writer/director Peter Mullan telling the audience that the time has come to separate the idealized nun from the real ones? That it is literally not all black and white? In the real world, the number of nuns has dwindled. During the pontificate of the late Pope John Paul II, Catholic nuns worldwide declined by a quarter. The Church in America has lost nearly 100,000 religious sisters in the last forty years, a much greater loss than the priesthood. Unlike many other religions nuns cannot be ordained. Their role as servant continues to define them, and to many, this is an unsatisfactory and diminished circumstance. It is perhaps only in the minds of moviegoers where the enigma and mystery of nuns will remain strong, where they can portray an image of rapture, power, and passion. Cinematically, they exist in an imaginary world


atop the Himalayas and the Swiss Alps, in comical romps, and at the front line at the lethal injection chamber. It is perhaps in the movies, where their image grabs hold and seizes our mind, body and soul.





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