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The blog from Sam Cook, author of The Rough Guide to Chick Flicks

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Name: Samantha Cook
Location: London, United Kingdom

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Sunday, March 04, 2007

Nun so brave: the strange world of the movie nun

Everyone loves a movie nun. And even if countless films, from Ken Russell’s histrionic The Devils (1971) to the lame comedy Nuns On The Run (1990), play on the skewed notion that those heavy habits are simply a cover up for lacy scanties and innate nymphomania, the best nun films are chick flicks par excellence.

It would take a pretty special man to beat Jesus in a Sister’s affection, and movie nuns have faced temptation beyond belief – Elvis Presley, Robert Mitchum, Peter Finch to name but three – leading to some seriously gripping moral grapplings. On the other hand, while romance in nun movies is invariably bubbling under the surface, a Bride of Christ is, unlike many female protagonists, actually able to form deep relationships with men based on more than just sex. Freed from the world’s demand to display their bodies, free of make-up and ornament, nuns can be independent and heroic.

In the closed orders, nuns get to be in a secret, very important club, free from bother from men; if working in the community, on the other hand, they can have worldly adventures unconstrained by the ties of marriage or child-rearing. And as jobs go, you can’t get much better than being God’s representative on Earth.

At the same time, wimples do frame the face rather exquisitely . . . (Movie nuns tend to be very striking, and invariably have soulful eyes).

Here's a selective list of the best nun movies available for rent.

Black Narcissus
dir Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1946, UK, 100m
Genius directors Powell and Pressburger created a vivid, dreamlike and captivating movie, based on the novel by Rumer Godden, that uses a remote Himalayan convent as the setting for all sorts of derring do. With a dashing Brit hero gone native (David Farrar, wearing very short shorts), a blacked up Jean Seymour pouting and gyrating as a mute "beggar maid", and a feral, wild-eyed Kathleen Byron as the nun driven mad, this is highly charged – and exquisitely beautiful – stuff. Poor old Deborah Kerr, as the conflicted Sister Clodagh, struggles to keep things in order.

Heaven Knows, Mr Allison
dir John Huston, 1957, US, 105m
A bittersweet two-hander set during World War II, in which a nun (Deborah Kerr, again) and a marine (Robert Mitchum) form a decorous, mutually respectful friendship while hiding out from the dastardly Japanese on a remote desert island. Delicate, nuanced performances, fine direction from Huston, and a lump-in-the-throat finale – simply lovely.

The Nun’s Story
dir Fred Zinnemann, 1959, US, 149m
An uncharacteristically dressed down Audrey Hepburn – open face and expressive eyes framed beautifully by her wimple – shows her range with this mature performance as Sister Luke, a Belgian nun struggling valiantly with her faith. Peter Finch offers brusque potential love interest. (Hepburn took to the habit once more in 1976 with the bittersweet Robin And Marian, another great nun's tale, in which she and Sean Connery come to terms with the inevitable poignancy of ageing.)

Change Of Habit
dir William A. Graham, 1969, US, 93m
Elvis’s last film is a very watchable curiosity, trotting out Black Power, rage reduction therapy and rape among other gritty social issues. Elvis is the plain-speaking doctor in a tough area of New York, Mary Tyler Moore one of three nuns who come to work with him. Spreading the word of the Lord on these mean streets entails shedding their habits and donning fetching mini-dresses, thus awakening all sorts of impulses. Groovy.

Dark Habits (Entre Tinieblas)
dir Pedro Almodóvar, 1983, Sp, 116m
Typically crazy early Almodóvar, in which a junkie (Cristina Pascual) takes refuge in the Convent of Humble Redeemers. The sisters here – including Sister Rat (Chus Lampreave) and Sister Sin (Carmen Maura) – are certainly doing it for themselves in this utterly blasphemous romp.

Agnes Of God
dir Norman Jewison, 1985, US, 98m
Meg Tilly is Agnes, the young nun who, after being discovered in her cell with a murdered newborn baby, undergoes a series of intense investigations by tough-talking psychologist Jane Fonda. Somewhat portentous, but the performances, including Anne Bancroft as the Mother Superior with something to hide, keep it afloat.

The Song Of Bernadette
dir Henry King, 1943, US, 156m, b/w
Jennifer Jones spends the full two and a half hours either smiling beatifically or weeping nobly in this laborious, but hugely popular, account of the miracle of Lourdes. Romantic temptation is tossed aside in order to hammer the point home about Bernadette’s purity of spirit and her seemingly endless suffering.

I, The Worst Of All (Yo, la peor de todas)
dir María Luisa Bemberg, 1990, Arg, 105m
This true story of seventeenth-century Mexican poet Sister Juana Inés de la Cruz makes an intense and harrowing movie. Entering the convent so she can study and write, Juana (Assumpta Serna) is the idealistic young woman who becomes embroiled in increasingly distressing politicking and betrayals.


Blogger Ros said...

Oh come on! I can only assume that you missed the greatest nun movie of all time by mistake. I refer, of course, to The Sound of Music. Maria, the would-be-nun with too much joie de vivre for the convent, won over by the marvellously stern Georg - what could be more romantic? And don't forget the nuns v. Nazis in the final scenes.

3:20 AM  
Anonymous Sharon said...

Let's also not forget Stella Stevens's turn as Sister George in "Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows." She's a modern, hip nun for the times. Nothin' is better than an hippie in a habit.

6:51 PM  
Anonymous eleonora11 said...

Hi there! you forgot a great one: Two Mules for Sister Sarah, with Clint Eastwood and Shirley McLane!

3:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't forget the marvelous old classic "Green Dolphin Street" which is cinematically one of the most stunningly beautiful black and white action movies, shot in the era before special effects.

Also, there is the minor but important nun in "The Painted Veil" whose big scene has something wise and unexpected, and unsentimental to say about a good nun's mature relationship with God. My only gripe is that the costuming director did no research, and put the middle-aged mother superior in a novice's white veil !

There's also Ingrid Bergman in "Bells of St Mary's" . . .

2:54 PM  

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