Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

The Nun's Story (1959)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

The Nun's Story (1959)

In director Fred Zinnemann's religious drama about a Belgian woman who entered a convent and later served in the Belgian Congo in Africa:

  • in the late 1920s in Bruges, Brussels, the headstrong and stubborn-minded Gabrielle "Gaby" Van der Mal (Audrey Hepburn) was walked to a convent (of nursing sisters) by her eminent surgeon-father Dr. Van der Mal (Dean Jagger) to enter as a postulant - to be 'married' to the church and serve as a medical nurse (hopefully in the Congo); he cautioned and advised: "Gaby, I can see you poor, I can see you chaste. But I cannot see you, a strong-willed girl, obedient to those bells....You may never get to the Congo. You certainly can never ask for it. You know that, don't you? Your personal wishes cease to exist when you enter that door"; when he said goodbye to his daughter, he also told her: "Remember, if you ever decide this is not right for you, there is no sense of failure in coming back home"; as she was about to be led away, she promised her father: "I'll do my best. I want you to be proud of me"
  • the strict and self-sacrificing rules of the convent, including "exercises in humility" and a rigid schedule (early morning rising, chapel, meals, and a period of 'Grand Silence'), and a reporting in a notebook "each and every imperfection against the Holy Rule" with the words: "I accuse myself..." - causing a challenge for the strong-willed Gaby for a six month period as a postulant
  • the sequence of Gaby's Day of Vesture, when she was given a name (Sister Luke) and the novice's habit; however, when told she would make "a beautiful nun", she blushed (a violation of the rules and an exhibition of the sin of pride) - and she discussed her discomfort with a fellow novice, thereby breaking the rule of Silence
  • during her training at medical school in Antwerp about tropical diseases (such as malaria), Dr. Goodvaerts (Lionel Jeffries) told the Sister students: "I, too, have lost some of my quickness, my memory from too much Congo sun. Too much quinine. If any of you think that the Congo that you'll find today in 1930 is anything like the Congo that we found when we went there 20 years ago, you will be mistaken"; he complimented Sister Luke's skills with a microscope, causing some competitive jealousy among the others: "She was brought up looking through a microscope, you know, whilst most of you were playing with kaleidoscopes"
  • instead of being sent to the Congo (her greatest wish, although denied because she wasn't "perfected in the religious life" and still needed to learn "obedience"), her placement in a European mental hospital/sanitarium near Brussels, where an assault on Sister Luke occurred by a dangerous schizophrenic patient named "Archangel Gabriel" (Colleen Dewhurst) after being tricked into unlocking her cell for a glass of water; Sister Luke was pulled into the cell, thrown to the floor and attacked
"Archangel Gabriel"
Dangerous Schizophrenic Patient
Thrown Onto Floor of Cell
  • her work in the Belgian Congo in a segregated hospital for 'white' and European patients (not natives), with the brilliant, atheistic ("an unbeliever") and demanding surgeon Dr. Fortunati (Peter Finch), a bachelor who was described by Mother Mathilde (Dame Peggy Ashcroft) as "a genius and a devil"; when she finally met him, he realized she had problems with "the display of pride" when she bragged about assisting her father in operations in the past
  • Sister Luke's diagnosis tuberculosis - when Dr. Fortunati confirmed her suspicions and fears, that she might have to return to Europe ("You're afraid you won't be able to stand the convent if they send you back"); he told Sister Luke that she was a "worldly nun" who was good for patients, but who could never conform to the convent's expectations: "I've never worked with any other kind of nurse except nuns since I began. And you're not in the mold, Sister. You never will be. You're what's called a worldly nun. ldeal for the public, ideal for the patients. But you see things your own way. You stick to your own ideas. You'll never be the kind of nun that your convent expects you to be. That's your illness. The TB is a by-product. I can cure the by-product, if you want me to"; she told him: "I want to stay"; but over time, he realized that Sister Luke's anxiety and tension were mostly due to her inner spiritual struggle: "I'd say that tension is a sign of an exhausting inner struggle"
  • the scene of the Belgian Congo native, after contact with a superstitious witch doctor, who attacked and struck to death (with a club) a nun who had invited unconverted natives to attend Christmas Eve service; the native was wrestled to the ground and subdued; it was learned that "a witch doctor told him that if he killed a white woman, he'd be rid of the ghost of his dead wife"
  • in the conclusion, Sister Luke returned to Belgium, where the onset of WWII, made it impossible for her to return to the Congo; she admitted that she could not forgive the Nazi Germans after she received a letter about the death of her father; she was devastated - "When I think of my father, I can't forgive the enemy" and she was "filled with hate"
Turning Point: News of the Death of Her Father
  • Sister Luke began to believe that she should leave the nunhood: "I simply cannot obey, and if I cannot obey, then" - and she affirmed: "I think I've been struggling all these years, Reverend Mother. In the beginning, each struggle seemed different from the one before it. But then they began to repeat and I saw they all had the same core: obedience without question, without inner murmuring. Perfect obedience as Christ practiced it, as I no longer can"
  • the ending sequence of Sister Luke's dispensation (or exemption) from her vows in Brussels, Belgium as she signed three sets of duplicate papers, received back her father's dowry, and was voluntarily released from all her vows (she was asked: "Sister, have you really considered the seriousness of what you're doing?" - and replied affirmatively); she was instructed: "Go through here to Room 12. Everything is ready. Press the button when you are finished and I will open"
  • and the final silent fadeout as she removed her nun's habit in Room 12 and the ring on her finger, pressed the exit button, and slowly walked away from the convent out into the sunlit cobblestone street, totally alone and without her nun's habit for the first time in many years; she became a lone figure in the distance, then turned to the right out of camera view, as bells pealed and "THE END" was superimposed
Dramatic Ending Sequence

Young Belgian Gabrielle Van der Mal (Audrey Hepburn)

Gaby with Her Father - Brought to Convent to Enter as Postulant Nurse

Struggling With the Rules of the Order, and "Maturity in the Religious Life"

Her Notebook: "I Accuse Myself..."

Tropical Disease Medical Training in Antwerp

In the Congo Hospital, Meeting Dr. Fortunati (Peter Finch)

Diagnosis of TB and the Doctor's Statement: "You're not in the mold, Sister"

Congo Native Attack on One of the Nuns



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