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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

TAKE 1, 2, 3: Blessed Virgins

Oh, Sister... Debbie Reynolds makes the sound of holy music in 
The Singing Nun.

In answer to the Roman soldier of God post I did a few weeks ago, I thought it appropriate to offer the female equivalent. At first glance, the Nun may seem like the least likely candidate for a Hollywood heroine, but this character has been refashioned for the screen multiple times, from The Bells of St. Mary's to Sister Act. We've made a habit (ha, haha) of both extolling the virtues and questioning the agenda behind a life "of the cloth." As women in film generally fall into two categories, the virgin and the whore, exposing the complicated nature of a Nun is the most symbolic way that screenwriters and filmmakers have used to interpret the good and evil in mankind. Ironically, when holding the mirror up to womankind in her purest form, we have sometimes received provocative and intriguing answers regarding the nature, not only of womanhood, but of the very soul of humanity. It was hard to choose which films to discuss for this article, since there are so many of interest-- Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison or Doubt, etc-- but in selecting the following three, I think I will more ably be able to zero in on the "three faces of Eve": the Good, the Evil, and the Human.

The Good

Cynicism has put a great dent in the faith of mankind, as has Time. Certainly, there are still practicing Catholics, Jews, Mormons, Muslims, etc, but living in the modern era, it is often difficult to be allegiant to a religion devised so long ago, which consequently instigates wars and constantly reveals itself through varying levels of hypocrisy. We fall on our knees in times of great struggle, sometimes praying without even realizing we are doing so, but the average person no longer seems to keep the concept of God in the same untarnished and unquestionable position as our forefathers. Ironically, today it is almost a sin to utter the name of "God." Have we forgotten him or outgrown him? These are questions every man must answer for himself, and they are equally questions that make films like The Song of Bernadette (1943) seem a bit peculiar by today's standards. Yet, despite the highly devout nature of the script, the film somehow transcends modernity and skepticism.  The beautiful performance of Jennifer Jones as Bernadette (left) and the surprisingly complex portrayal of the various other supporting characters in the film illuminate faith as something very real and worth discussing, and finally worth embracing. It is how we react to miracles and how we approach conflict that determines our spirit. Whether the Holy Spirit is a man made creation or an intangible presence in human life, in this film, it wears the face of true innocence and piety, making believers out of even the most mistrusting of men and evoking emotion from the stoniest of hearts.

The plot of The Song of Bernadette follows the title character as she unexpectedly finds, introduces, and renews faith in her community-- the French village of Lourdes. A soft-headed, sickly girl, "Bernadette" is generally harmless. She has vague plans of getting married some day, perhaps to the nice Antoine (William Eythe) who lives nearby, and having a family of her own. Her own family is poor and-- more often than not-- Bernadette, for all of her sweetness, is still viewed as somewhat of a burden to them. Then, one day, when Bernadette is left alone by the river, she has a vision of a beautiful woman (in a strange cameo by Linda Darnell, right). She is moved by what she sees, is totally peaceful and adoring, but only she can see or hear what the great "Lady" says. When she shares this news, no one believes her, of course,  and her claims are made even more hysterical by the fact that she has had her vision in such close proximity to the city dumping ground. Yet, she continues her pilgrimage to see the Lady, who has asked her to come for fifteen straight days. Soon, her disapproving parents, the skeptical Priest, the town doctor-- a man of science-- are all won over to her side. Whether or not they believe in her vision, they believe in her-- her purity, her innocence, and her good will.

Bernadette defends her visions to Prosecutor Dutour, and her honesty and calm reason
trump his textbooks every time.

The only sect that does not believe are the lawmen, represented most fully and of course villainously with the always elegant and sinister Vincent Price as "Prosecutor Vital Dutour." Why is it only men of man-made laws that seem to fear her? Perhaps because they are not of the earth or nature. Even Lee J. Cobb's "Dr. Dozous," who is ever-rational, is still a man who uses the earthly elements to cure the sick. Law men only have their words and personal fabrications. They are threatened by the power that Bernadette peacefully and accidentally accrues, as throngs of followers begin to join her as she kneels before the Lady in her nightly prayers. The Priest, played by the crinkly-faced Charles Bickford, too combats his own doubts and is forced to confront his apparent lack of faith in man, which he rediscovers in Bernadette. But Price's prosecutor and his fellow cronies cannot fathom what has not been written down, and they too perhaps feel a sexual need to destroy Bernadette's purity and chastity: even a modest, unassuming, agenda-less girl like herself is harmful to them for the mere fact that she refuses to demurely sit in a corner and follow their rules. To add insult to injury, she serves, not even God, but the Lady, whom she describes as "The Immaculate Conception"-- a title that leaves the community bewildered.

In time, and due to much business that I won't go into, a spring erupts that brings with it mystical healing powers. Bernadette is now looked upon as a Saint. Her contact with this strange Goddess, whom she cautiously never refers to as the Blessed Virgin, has resulted in a much in-demand, natural elixir that heals the sick, cures the blind, and allows the crippled to walk. Bernadette carries no pride or honor for her deeds. She, simple-minded as she is, sees nothing strange about what she has done, nor does she feel the need to claim any sort of reward or glory for it. Jones, in her portrayal, is the epitome of innocence-- of goodness. She is selfless, kind, uncomplicated, but real. We never believe that Bernadette is immaculate herself, just that she, as a real girl, was chosen to be a vessel through which holy information comes. The accidental way that her natural knowledge always undoes the learned lawmakers and their own brand of reason is also continuously comical. Finally, when she is encouraged to continue her Godly work by becoming a Nun, she takes pause. She is not totally certain that she wants to leave behind a life of earthly love to continue seeking the divine. Yet, she is easily convinced that it is the proper path. She has been "called," and as a simple girl, she will follow where she is led. (Bernadette walks away from a life and love that could have been, left).

For many years, Bernadette does not see the Lady again, and her hours are spent in prayer, reflection, and staving off the icy attacks of fellow Sister "Marie Therese," (Gladys Cooper, right), who is insulted that all of her years of servitude have not been rewarded with the enriching visions that the novice Bernadette has attained. The work of a Nun is not a vacation. It is a hard life of isolation and obedience. Bernadette, of course, never complains, not even when it is discovered that she has a painful tumor growing on her leg. She is also continually tested about her prior claims by religious authorities, who still do not believe her tales and visions, but she steadfastly maintains her stories. As she finally dies, she sees the Lady once more. One wonders, as she shudders with her last breath, if all she gave in her life was worth it? What, in the end, did it all mean? The spring she once brought to life eventually became a gimmick for the local lawmen to draw in travelers, and the "holy" water is now sold as a product. The miracles that she worked-- except in the memories of those who knew her-- will seemingly die with her. Yet, it does seem worth it, and director Henry King's handling of the story convinces viewers that such simple things of beauty, such innocent creatures as Bernadette, such selfless actions, and above all, such messages of love, are all that count in life. The "song" of Bernadette may have only been understood by those nearest her in her own lifetime, but if we listen closely, we can still hear the music in our own. The trick is to avoid hypocrisy and abandon all rules but the golden one. If we live openly with the heart of a child, we can have a paradise on earth of our own making.

The Bad

Black Narcissus (1947) couldn't disagree more. If Bernadette was about how faith renews life, Narcissus is about how faith kills. The essential ingredient needed to make faith palatable-- and a shared experience between the earthly and the divine-- is people. Community. Brotherhood. This is why faith grew and thrived in Bernadette's small town of Lourdes. The plague of Black Narcissus is the plague of isolation. The Nuns are not sisters of Man, they are servants of God-- detached, cool, lifeless. Deborah Kerr leads the cast as "Sister Clodagh," and her usual stunning beauty is paled and starched to show the absence of flavor in her life. She is given the righteous task of being the youngest Sister Superior to manage her cohorts in Mopu, where they will form a hospital and school for children and young girls. It feels more like a punishment than a reward. The castle in the sky to which the Sisters arrive stands on a great precipice, (which gives one vertigo even from the comfort of the couch, see left). The sole sound of life that echoes from the Old General's donated Palace-- which used to house his ancestors' many mistresses-- is the large bell that tolls the hour and calls the sisters to prayer. Looking down as "Sister Ruth" (Kathleen Bryon) rings the bell as part of her daily task, it is strange to note that, though high above the village below, it seems that the Sisters are the ones in Hell. Peace and life are found with the local people, including the new, younger General (Sabu), whom the sisters take to calling "Black Narcissus." His presence is not welcomed at first, for he is a man, but as he cleverly points out that Jesus was too, Sister Clodagh agrees to take him in as a student.

Another snake in the grass is "Mr. Dean" (David Farrar), who at all time tests the faith of the sisters and flirts with them as well, making fun of their faith and counting the days until their lifeless isolation forces them to abandon their pie in the sky ideals. The sexual tension between him and Sister Clodagh is very poignant, but initially, his charms and chauvinism have no effect-- except on Sister Ruth. All the sisters are effected by Mopu in different ways, it seems. The Palace stands not as a place of healing nor peace, as they had intended, but in time it comes to serve as a test for their own faith and stamina. This far away from people-- in this heightened experience of isolation, the constant wind, and the constant cold-- each nun is left alone with only her own thoughts for company. No matter where they turn, each woman is forced to come face to face with herself. 

The results manifest themselves in different ways. The good in some is brought to the surface; the evil in others. Sister Ruth is suddenly ruled by an incurable lust and an obsession with Dean. "Sister Philippa" (Flora Robson) is filled with guilt over her own memories, which make her lose track of time and botch her gardening duties. The past brings her pain, and she lacks the courage to face it. She begs Sister Clodagh to send her away to no avail, for Kerr's hard-lining and hard-nosed Sister Superior won't allow any of them to bow to weakness. However, her Sister Clodagh is also forced to face her past, but when she does, color begins to return to her face (right). In her flashbacks, we see Sister Clodagh as a young woman in love, with her childhood family, with dreams... She slowly rediscovers her own humanity and her passions, and as a result, she eventually comes out from hiding behind her orders, dictates, and structures. The parts within that all sisters attempted to bury, thus, come to the surface. They tried to use faith as a shield from themselves, and now they are to be punished.

The tension that all of these revelations cause is harsh to the senses. In fact, the film is at times difficult to even watch, because the horror and dementia each Nun undergoes is so perfectly communicated by the at times taut, at times languid, at times beautiful direction. The entire story unfolds as a tease, as if one were falling asleep bored only to find oneself suddenly in the midst of a bad dream! The only moment of true vibrancy comes from the sinful and vain "Kanchi," played without a word by the always stunning Jean Simmons (left,with Sabu). She eventually steals the equally pompous but charming young General away for a sexual escape, and when these tokens of colorful life disappear, all Hell breaks loose. Indeed, when a young child dies in the Sisters' care, the entire village abandons them, thinking them cursed, or hexed, etc. Now, they have only each other to face, all with their spirits breaking and their convictions shattering. 

Sister Ruth brazenly decides to leave the convent and goes through the wilderness to reclaim her forgotten womanhood with Dean. Unfortunately for her, he wants no part of her maniacal seduction. He has clearly fallen in love with Sister Clodagh, whose stubborn defiance and forgotten self has touched him. (Even nuns, it seems, can get involved in the occasional cat fight). And so, Sister Ruth-- in full lipstick and civilian regalia-- climbs the long way back up the mountain to paint the Palace red-- with blood. Sister Clodagh waits, sweating, as if knowing her fate is approaching. Sister Ruth could even be read as the most evil, highly sexualized, gluttonous half of Sister Clodagh's character. Sister Clodagh fears her, because she sees a self that has remained a dormant threat to the vows that she took before God so long ago. The nearly psychologically broken Clodagh goes to ring the mighty bell for the last time, as the desperately creepy and menacing Ruth (right) lunges for her, trying to push her into the abyss! Sister Clodagh triumphs; Sister Ruth plummets to her death. The evil parasite has been exorcised.

The stunning photography of the notorious Jack Cardiff blends the beauty and 
horror of the infamous palace of mirrors.

Despite Sister Clodagh's triumph, the time has still come to abandon the Palace on a hill. The message seems to be that one should not attempt to grow closer to God as the cost of losing your humanity. God created life so that people could live it, not hide from it, as the sisters learned during their sojourn in Mopu. As the Nuns descend the mountain, the castle gets swallowed up by the clouds, as if it never existed-- as if they were in an intangible place and have been spit back into the real world. Despite everything that Clodagh has faced, she has been reconfirmed in her commitment to the cloth. Yet, we see shades of her young self as she extends her hand to Dean during their final goodbye. Demoted from her position, she has a long way to go in repairing the damage and shame that she has brought to the Sisterhood during the tragedy of Mopu, but she is willing to start over. Then, she and the sisters disappear into the fog from Dean's view, again, as if they had never existed. He has learned something of his visceral cynicism too-- that there is a state of being more intense and pure than the one that he chooses to recognize. The idea is that salvation is found in combining the two mindsets to find the perfect formation of life on earth.

The Human

This brings us to The Nun's Story, and it is indeed a Nun's story. The film's tremendous success can be attributed to both the intelligent and complex performance of Audrey Hepburn (left) and the depth and realism of the plot. Unlike Bernadette and Narcissus, who merely grazed the surface of what it means to leave one's life and one's self behind to enter into a life of religious servitude, The Nun's Story is all about that decision: the sacrifice, the obedience, and the harsh reality. Throughout history, the reasons of entering the nunnery have been that of necessity (a landing place for an unmarried girl who is a burden to her parents or is being punished for deviant behavior) or naive piety. From the outside, it seems easy. The church is a safe haven away from man's temptations and issues. Money is not a concern, sex is not a concern, and while one must get by with very little luxury or comfort, the reward for devoting one's life to God is believed to be enough. We have imagined these women quietly pacing behind the convent walls-- some of them angelic, some old and crotchety-- but never before this film has the harsh duty, discipline, and psychological torment that they endure been brought to life. The cliches are broken. Nuns are neither flawless super-humans nor dried-up spinsters with no other haven. They are your run-of-the-mill, fallible mortals, and the human battle that they endure on a daily basis is not some meek challenge to be sniffed at. Leaving one's life behind may be easy; but leaving one's soul is not.

Gabrielle sheds her vanity with her hair.

The film opens with Audrey's "Gabrielle" (soon to be "Sister Luke") entering the convent. Everyone tries to stop her: her father, her siblings, etc. They don't understand why someone such as herself-- so rebellious, it seems-- would give up her life to be, as they see it, tucked away from the world. Her father (Dean Jagger) tries to talk her out of it, but Gabrielle has made her decision. Her rebellion, her strength, is surprisingly what draws her to the sisterhood. She is a young woman with something to prove. Her determination to accomplish, perhaps in her family's eyes, the impossible is what appeals to her. She seems almost to be a masochist, and while her father warns her that the call to obedience will be a hefty chore for someone such as herself to follow, she quietly considers this a salivating challenge. She wants to conquer all doubt and conquer her self. We know little of her life outside the convent, other than the fact that she is leaving some pining man behind. Her decision to give him and her freedom up is the result, apparently, of nothing more than her iron will. 

Gabrielle undergoes all the usual processes and steps in becoming Sister Luke. She must learn to empty her head of selfish thoughts, she must employ only modesty-- which includes hiding her hands in her robes-- and most difficult for her, she must conquer her own pride. The Nunnery seeks to dilute all traces of vanity, thus all traces of individuality, personality, and color. There is no Sister Luke; there is only the body that operates as God's servant. Sister Luke finds these tests hard to take (see, right). She has countless sins to record in her prayer book every day. Her pride becomes a major factor, particularly when she is training in medicine, so that she may attend patients in hopefully a foreign terrain-- her dream. Like her father, she wishes to be a doctor, but better than him, she wants to serve both God and man in doing so. Yet, when she excels in class, it evokes the envy of another Sister. She goes to her Superior to ask for advice and is told that, to aid her Sisters better, she must show humility and fail her next exam. To Sister Luke, this is a sin greater than even she can accomplish. To deny this last vestige of herself-- her intelligence and her ability to help others-- is a submission she will not undergo. She passes her exam with flying colors, but is punished for this vanity when she is not immediately sent abroad to the Congo as she wishes. Still, she digs in her heels and keeps going. Not everyone is so patient nor so brave. Sisters-to-be drop like flies. Sister Luke makes it to the end of her training, and as is her wish, she is finally sent to the Congo.

Much like Mr. Dean in Narcissus, "Doctor Fortunati," played superbly by Peter Finch (left), fills the role of the masculine, sexual advancer in the film. He is Sister Luke's counterpoint. He challenges her beliefs with his science, he evokes her forbidden sexuality, but mostly he tries to wheedle out the passions of her former self. The sexual tension between them is never overt nor sensual. It is all subtlety. The misunderstanding and irritation that they have for each other quickly turns to mutual respect, as Fortunati realizes that Sister Luke is no ordinary Nun. If nothing else, she is a great nurse and medical aid. What's more, he can see the woman inside, as well as her constantly battling conscience, which leaves her tired, weak, and eventually bedridden. There are no come-ons. There is not even any touching. But, you see in their mutual body language and attentions to each other that, in another life, in another dimension, they would have been soul mates. Then again, perhaps Sister Luke's protective habit, which separates them, is the only thing keeping them together. When she pulls away from the Congo in the train, sent back to Belgium, and you see the disappearing figure of Fortunati watching her go, it breaks the heart.

War comes, and it tears everything to shreds. Sister Luke's hopes of serving God by serving man go unfulfilled as battles ensue. Consistently during her career as a Sister, Luke's obedience has been tested. She does not always stop to pray when the bell tolls, particularly if she is in the middle of helping a patient in need. She becomes too personal and emotionally involved with the men and women she cares for in Africa (right). Now, the world outside is raging, and she is locked away as if the sisters are in hiding when they should be out fighting, helping their fellow man, and trying to piece the broken world back together again. She makes a final act of defiance in allowing a new, young Sister to get out of the convent in order to help some soldiers. It is what she would have done at her age. It is what she wishes that she could do now. Then, word reaches her that her father is dead-- her father, whom despite herself she loves more than the Holy Father. It is the final straw that breaks her world-weary back. 

She makes the fatal decision to leave the convent. Just as when she first entered, many try to stop her and beg her to rethink herself. But her self is just what she is returning to. Her dismissal is a shameful display. She is treated like a woman with the plague, sent to a little room to remove her robes-- revealing the streaks of gray hair around her once young face. She is given her dowry back and her old belongings, and then... she exits. A door almost magically opens, and she walks out, growing smaller and smaller in the camera's view. The moment comes like a wave of relief to the viewer, who has endured her nerves and agony and has longed for this catharsis. Gabrielle, as she is named again, turns and walks away. Where she goes, no one knows, but for the first time in a long time, her path is her choice.

The isolation of the Nuns in Black Narcissus makes them seem hard
and "unholy." They only truly serve God when they come
in contact with the people of the village.

If the three discussed films have any commonality, it is the lesson they preach that there must be a unity of both God and Man. Anything in extreme is dangerous. If indeed there is a God, He created life so that we could live it. He created joy and love so that we could enjoy it, (and overcome all of those dangerous hurdles Satan unlocked when he tempted Eve with that damn apple). When the people of Babel built their tower in the sky, they got too close to God and were sent crashing down. So, the women of these films, while they have ethereal aspirations, cannot totally outgrow their human surroundings, nor should they. The point is not to be divine, but to be alive-- to do service to your fellow man in whatever mode one finds appropriate, whether as a Priest or a civilian. Abandoning your brethren for high ideals is, thus, the greatest sin of all. Celestial faith has a price, but goodness can be found and evil defied on earth. That is the challenge we have inherited and the one we must live with and endure together. All films are wonderful in their own way, but if you only see one, see The Nun's Story. I was shocked by how much I loved and responded to it, and I'm sure you will be too. Peace out.


  1. Just in time for Lent! I loved Audrey in The Nun's Story. She reminded me of my second grade teacher, Sister Mary who looked like the Virgin Mother herself! Well, it's back to Bessie Love and The Broadway Melody .Thanks Meredith