The Nun’s Story is about the possibility of achieving perfection. What would it mean to be a perfect human being? Would your version of a perfect human being resemble the woman Sister Luke attempts to become? 

Should human beings aspire to be perfect? Should Christians aspire to be like Christ? Are either of these possible? 
Why must Sister Luke shed her personality and her memories in order to achieve perfection? 
One critic has written that unlike other films about religion, “this film does not treat the audience as the choir that will receive the preaching.” How does The Nun’s Story treat its audience? 
The Nun’s Story has been compared to a war movie – “the near military discipline of the novices, trained to proclaim their guilt for breaking the rules and abase themselves in penance, has the psychological reality of enduring boot camp.” Is this a fair comparison? How is violence conveyed in this film? Does the movie embrace religion? Attack religion? Is the religious life “against nature”? 
Is Sister Luke fighting her own nature in order to be a nun? 
Consider Audrey Hepburn’s performance. How does it differ from other Hepburn performances? Is her Sister Luke sentimentalized? Ennobled? Do we understand why Gabriele has chosen this life? Do we need to understand her reasons in order to appreciate this film? 
The editor of one of Fred Zinnemann’s later films wrote that the director “loved it when actors bumped into the furniture, when they were not yet familiar with the scene and didn’t know where they were going. He loved that kind of randomness. He said, in life, events are always happening for the first time, they’re not happening for the seventh time.” Do we see evidence of his love of randomness and improvisation in this film? 
One critic has written that “the typical Zinnemann film reaches a climax when a clock ticks away the seconds while the protagonist struggles with the enemy within, and somewhere close by there’s a locomotive coming. In his body of work there are notably few guns but many trains, remarkably little romance or outright comedy, but much searching for consequences and externalizing of interior dramas.” How appropriate is this as a description of The Nun’s Story?
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21 Responses to The Nun’s Story: Questions for Reflection

  1. Natalie Masters says:

    I do not think there is any way a person can be perfect. I would consider the definition of perfection to be without any flaws. To be human is to have flaws. There have been many individuals throughout human history who have made significant impacts on our world. According to the Christians, even Christ does not believe that he was perfect. This is why the idea of forgiveness is so important to the Christian faith. I cannot even truly describe what I think a perfect human being is… The closest thing I would say would be someone who lives their life in the service of others. I still do not think the word perfect applies. I also believe that humans should not try to achieve perfection. To me perfection seems to be a self-fulfilling idea, instead of achieving perfection for yourself, there are other things you could be working towards.


    No person can be perfect and if someone tried to be, how could we define this? Complex and different cultures and religions obviously disallow a concrete definition of what perfect is. To exemplify this, we can think about the fact that some people believe that it is okay to murder others for religious reasons. In the convent, we can see that the nuns are always pressing people to be perfect, which is absolutely maddening. It is simply in human nature to sin, therefore perfection isn’t real and the movie even creates a negative outlook towards perfection, associating it with something that creates distress and unhappiness.


    The line “You can cheat us, but you cannot cheat yourself or God” to be incredibly powerful. Another nun who is preparing to leave and abandon the cloth says this to Sister Luke. The other woman reveals that she would be cheating if she remained. Though Sister Luke does not say much to try to convince her other wise, or really say anything in response at all, her face speaks volumes. Her face reads worrisome and questionable. I believe that the fact that this other woman is able to admit that she would be cheating herself and God made Sister Luke realize that perhaps she is not being completely honest with herself.

    Shortly after, she is asked if she would be able to fail her examination to prove her humility. The music is dramatic and there is apparent shock on Sister Luke’s face. The inner workings of the mother house are slowly being revealed. They are, in a way, corrupt. Often, I feel that the nun’s with seniority pressure the new nuns to get what is best for senior nuns. I am not even sure if I got the intended message of the film, but it seems that in many instances, there is corruption masked as “sacrifice” or “humility.” The first example of this being that even though Sister Luke’s examination was the fourth best out of eighty, she is sent to work in the mental institution. I believe that she was being punished for not accepting the offer of failing her examination. I admire her personal strength and strong footing.


    I think the way this film portrays the quest for perfection serves as a condemnation of perfection itself. In watching Sister Luke’s struggle against her nature to become what she sees as perfect, I do not see how achieving perfection will make you happy.

    In all of my elementary school religious education, I was never taught to strive to be “perfect.” Strive to be better, yes, and to strive to be the best you can be, but never held to an impossible standard like perfection. As is shown in the film, the pressures of reaching an unreachable standard result in nothing more than frustrated unhappiness.

    The idea that Sister Luke must shed her memories and personality to achieve perfection makes logical sense, as you have lived your life steeped in imperfections. In order to progress, you must leave all of that behind. However, I believe that is an impossible task. You cannot uncondition yourself, and those that do uncondition themselves from their past are often the victims of brainwash or cult activity. Perfection, religious or otherwise, is impractical. We as humans have lived thousands of years wallowing in imperfect selves, and no one has made it out as a perfect person…for good reason.


    The Christian ideal of perfection perplexes me in that attention is paid first and foremost to God, then to his most precious creation, man. This even comes at the expense of man, something we see Sister Luke questioning towards the end of the film. She asks how God can demand to pull her away from a conversation about to reach a critical point, a patient that needs interaction, or even a surgery. Wouldn’t God want his creations saved, preserving what he had created?
    Regardless, Sister Luke finds she cannot live up to this ideal. Her care for the welfare of man supersedes even God in some cases, something she cannot deal with in the convent. She cannot live up to the Christian ideal of perfection. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I think Sister Luke’s character is a better representation of perfection than the Christian ideal. Care for humanity, not its creator, is a much more worthwhile endeavor in my opinion. Mankind is in the here and now, God is off in the future, when your reckoning comes along. It would seem that someone who cared about someone else before themself would be the same, in principle, as loving God more than yourself. Furthermore, the two wouldn’t seem to be mutually exclusive. We hear the desperation in Sister Luke’s voice when talking about her failings in obedience, how she just wants to continue caring about someone in the present over God.
    The movie, it seems, is critical of the sternness of this obedience requirement. This is not only shown through Sister Luke’s small clashes with obedience, either. We see the effect obedience has on the greater work of these nuns, specifically Sister Luke. For all the great work she was doing in the Congo, she was taken back to the nunnery in order to basically tame her. All the good work that she was doing apparently took a back seat to her absolute obedience. It seems counterintuitive, and I believe the movie was trying to show that in practical terms.

  6. MELISSA AMY says:

    At church the other week, my pastor brought up the idea of the “Old Testament versus the New Testament God.” His argument was that the Old Testament God required sacrifices and punished people for their imperfections. People of the Old Testament had to work toward perfection because they had yet to receive a savior. The God of the New Testament, he argued, understood our failure and sent his Son to save us. While we should strive to act like Christ, we do not have to be perfect.
    Throughout the movie it seemed to me that the Nuns were operating under the ideal of the “Old Testament God.” They felt that they had to be perfect and any imperfections must be accounted for and repented for. The nuns must follow strict rules and guidelines in order to be worthy of their salvation. However, it is their very failure to be perfect that requires their need of salvation. Interestingly, the rules about following the bells, not taking a glass of water and staying by the walls in corridors are devised by the Catholic church, not God. Sister Luke is held accountable not only to God’s rules, but to the man-made rules of the Catholic church.
    Sister Luke joins the Catholic Church as a nun because she desires to be more like Christ. She wants to help ease people’s suffering through her God-given gift of healing. Ironically, when she disobeys the nunnery’s rules about stopping work at the bell or listening and helping the struggles of a fellow nun, she better models the compassion and love of Christ. In fact, it is many of the rules that the church imposes on Sister Luke that prevents her from becoming more Christ-like.

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