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The Nun's Story is a 1959 American drama film directed by Fred Zinnemann and starring Audrey Hepburn, Peter Finch, Edith Evans, and Peggy Ashcroft. The screenplay was written by Robert Anderson, based upon the 1956 novel of the same name by Kathryn Hulme. The film tells the life of Sister Luke (Hepburn), a young Belgian woman who decides to enter a convent and make the many sacrifices required by her choice.

The Nun's Story
Nun story.jpg
Original film poster
Directed byFred Zinnemann
Produced byHenry Blanke
Screenplay byRobert Anderson
Based onThe Nun's Story
1956 novel
by Kathryn Hulme
Music byFranz Waxman
CinematographyFranz Planer
Edited byWalter Thompson
Warner Bros.
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
  • July 18, 1959 (1959-07-18)
Running time
149 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$3.5 million[1]
Box office$12.8 million[1]

The book was based upon the life of Marie Louise Habets, a Belgian nurse who similarly spent time as a nun. The film follows the book fairly closely, although some critics believe the film shows sexual tension in the relationship between Dr. Fortunati (Peter Finch) and Sister Luke that is absent from the novel.

A major portion of the film takes place in the Belgian Congo, site of location shooting,[2] where Sister Luke assists Dr. Fortunati in surgical procedures at a mission hospital. The location was Yakusu, a center of missionary and medical activity in the Belgian Congo.[3]

It marked Colleen Dewhurst's film debut.[4]


Plot summaryEdit

Gabrielle "Gaby" Van Der Mal (Audrey Hepburn), whose father Hubert (Dean Jagger) is a prominent surgeon in Belgium, enters a convent of nursing sisters in the late 1920s, hoping to serve in the Belgian Congo. After receiving the religious name of Sister Luke, she undergoes her postulancy and novitiate which foreshadow her future difficulties with the vow of obedience. She takes her first vows and is sent to a school of tropical medicine.

After passing her courses with high marks, along with some spiritual conflict, she silently resists the Mother Superior's request to purposely fail her final exam as a proof of her humility. Despite finishing fourth in her class, she is not assigned to the Congo but sent to a European mental hospital where she assists with the most difficult and violent cases, wasting her tropical medicine skills. A particularly violent schizophrenic (Colleen Dewhurst) tricks Sister Luke into opening the cell door in violation of the rules. She attacks Sister Luke, who barely escapes and once again faces the shame of her disobedience.

Eventually she takes her solemn vows and is sent to her long-desired posting in the Congo. Once there, she is disappointed that she will not be nursing the natives, but will instead work in a segregated whites/European patient hospital. She develops a strained but professional relationship with the brilliant, atheistic surgeon there, Dr. Fortunati (Peter Finch). Eventually, the work strains and spiritual struggles cause her to succumb to tuberculosis. Fortunati, not wanting to lose a competent nurse and sympathetic to her desire to stay in the Congo, engineers a treatment plan that allows her to remain there rather than having to convalesce in Europe.

After Sister Luke recovers and returns to work, Fortunati is forced to send her to Belgium as the only nurse qualified to accompany a VIP who has become mentally unstable. She spends an outwardly reflective but inwardly restless period at the motherhouse in Brussels before the superior general gives her a new assignment. Due to the impending war in Europe, she cannot return to the Congo, and is assigned as a surgical nurse at a local hospital.

While at her new assignment, Sister Luke's struggle with obedience becomes impossible for her to sustain, as she is repeatedly forced into compromises to cope with the reality of the Nazi occupation, including that they have killed her father. No longer able to continue as a nun, she requests and is granted a dispensation from her vows. She is last seen changing into lay garb and exiting the convent through a back door.


This house on the Sint-Annarei [nl] in Bruges was a backdrop of the movie

Awards and honorsEdit

The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Actress in a Leading Role (Audrey Hepburn), Best Cinematography, Color, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture, Best Picture, Best Sound (George Groves) and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium.[5]

The Nun's Story was a major box office success in its day. Produced on a budget of $3.5 million, it grossed $12.8 million at the domestic box office,[1] earning $6.3 million in US theatrical rentals.[6] The Nun's Story was considered, for a time, to be the most financially successful of Hepburn's films and the one the actress often cited as her favourite. Hepburn met Marie-Louise Habets while preparing for the role, and Habets later helped nurse Hepburn back to health following her near-fatal horse-riding accident on the set of the 1960 film The Unforgiven.

The Nun's Story received its first official North American DVD release on April 4, 2006. The story behind the book and film was the subject of The Belgian Nurse, a radio play by Zoe Fairbairns, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on January 13, 2007.

The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:


The Nun's Story carries a 93% favorable rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, based on 15 reviews.


  1. ^ a b c Box Office Information for The Nun's Story. The Numbers. Retrieved December 16, 2013.
  2. ^ "The Nun's Story (1959)". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved October 15, 2011.
  3. ^ "Wellcome Library for the History of Medicine & Understanding". Leprosy History. Retrieved 2011-10-25.
  4. ^ "The Nun's Story (1959) - Notes". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved October 15, 2011.
  5. ^ "The 32nd Academy Awards (1960) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2011-08-21.
  6. ^ "1959: Probable Domestic Take", Variety, January 6, 1960 p 34.
  7. ^ "AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-14.
  8. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-08-14.

External linksEdit