Written by: Beth Kelly on August 13th, 2015
As is the case with priests, nuns tend to be relegated to certain roles in movies. Yet there are times when women of faith are portrayed in a manner befitting their calling that also connects with moviegoers. You don’t have to be Catholic to be drawn to characters who have taken their vows – even when used towards comedic effect (Sister Act), the portrayal of deeply religious commitments in film is an opportunity to reexamine our own relationship to both the spirit and the flesh. Today, now that the movie house has replaced the cathedral, it’s worth taking a closer look at five films starring some of the best cinematic nuns of all time.
Black Narcissus (1947)
Noted most famously for its exquisite cinematography and art direction (winning Oscars for both), Black Narcissus follows a group of nuns as they endeavor to establish a convent in the remote hills of the Himalayas. The movie, based on a book of the same name by Rumer Godden, takes us deep into the psychological dramas that arise as a result of their mutual isolation. Obsessive internal conflicts (recurrent thoughts of a former lover, the maddening effects of religious fanaticism) are painted against the exotic background of Nepal. The film is further helped along by its outstanding cast of British actresses (Deborah Kerr, Jean Simmons), whose character portrayals explore the complexity of motivations which inform our decisions, regardless of whether or not we have a higher calling.
Heaven Knows, Mister Allison (1957)
Directed by John Huston, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison sees a devout nun (Deborah Kerr, back in the habit) who was left behind on a Pacific Island as she forms a bond with a rough-around-the-edges marine corporal (Robert Mitchum) who is shipwrecked on the same desolate atoll. Easily one of the best – and often overlooked – of the World War II dramas made during this period, the film is an excellent story of two people from different worlds united in a shared purpose. Done with the mix of humor and playful action characteristic of Huston’s films, it also manages to touch on the more timeless, existential sentiments of nostalgic ache and longing. There’s reportedly an alternate ending to this film where Mr. Allison goes looking for Kerr’s character at her convent sometime after they’re rescued.
The Trouble With Angels (1966)
Reveling in the lighter side of life at a Catholic school, The Trouble with Angels revolves around two energetic troublemakers (Hayley Mills and June Harding) who shake things up for the nuns at St. Francis Academy. The film follows the two rambunctious teens throughout their high school years, concluding with one of them receiving “the calling” by the time the story wraps up. The movie stands out today as a film appropriate for both children and adults, its timeless subject matter treated with respectful whimsy that doesn’t resort to the foul language and crude jokes which pass for humor in many of today’s movies. Portia Nelson and Mary Wickes would go on to play nuns in other movies as well (The Sound of Music and the Sister Act movies, respectively).
The Rosary Murders (1987)
In The Rosary Murders, Donald Sutherland is a priest who receives the confession of the killer responsible for the murders of several priests and nuns, with black rosary beads left behind as a calling card. The movie shows the internal struggles of Sutherland’s character who, while respectful of the seal of confession, is consumed by the guilt he feels by knowing who the killer is and not being able to do anything to stop him from claiming another life. It’s a compelling thriller that effectively uses a sacred belief of the Catholic Church as a source of internal conflict. Fun fact: White Stripes’ front-man Jack White has an uncredited role as an altar boy.
Situated in Poland a few decades following World War II, Ida tells the tale of a woman (Agata Trzebuchowska) on the verge of taking her vows to become a nun who embarks on a road trip with her aunt to find out what happened to her family, who were captured during the German occupation. While the overriding storyline is compelling, it’s Ida’s desire to experience “worldly sins and pleasures” before devoting her life to God that presents a well-developed character who is more than what she appears to be on the surface. The black and white film has been referred to as a “new masterpiece” by some critics. Ida won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, becoming the first Polish film to obtain the honor.
As evidenced by the diverse depictions of nuns in the films above, most of which are still available through Vudu and FioS on demand, part of the appeal of the “nun character” portrayal in movies is their ability to see through the veil of reality and towards a high purpose. Whether we’re watching conflicted nuns as they question their faith, silly sisters with hearts of gold or infectiously upbeat women of faith, there’s no denying the lasting appeal of nuns on the big screen.