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The Nun's Story (1959)

Not Rated | | Drama | 18 July 1959 (USA)
3:12 | Trailer
After leaving a wealthy Belgian family to become a nun, Sister Luke struggles with her devotion to her vows during crisis, disappointment, and World War II.


Fred Zinnemann


Robert Anderson (screenplay), Kathryn Hulme (book) (as Kathryn C. Hulme)
Nominated for 8 Oscars. Another 11 wins & 15 nominations. See more awards »



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Cast overview, first billed only:
Audrey Hepburn ... Sister Luke (Gabrielle van der Mal)
Peter Finch ... Dr. Fortunati
Edith Evans ... Rev. Mother Emmanuel (Belgium) (as Dame Edith Evans)
Peggy Ashcroft ... Mother Mathilde (Africa) (as Dame Peggy Ashcroft)
Dean Jagger ... Dr. Van Der Mal
Mildred Dunnock ... Sister Margharita (Mistress of Postulants)
Beatrice Straight ... Mother Christophe (Sanatorium)
Patricia Collinge ... Sister William (convent teacher)
Rosalie Crutchley ... Sister Eleanor
Ruth White ... Mother Marcella (School of Medicine)
Barbara O'Neil ... Mother Didyma (War-time Hospital)
Margaret Phillips ... Sister Pauline (medical student)
Patricia Bosworth Patricia Bosworth ... Simone (postulant who changed her mind)
Colleen Dewhurst ... Archangel Gabriel (Sanatorium)
Stephen Murray ... Chaplain (Father Andre)


In 1930, in Belgium, Gabrielle van der Mal is the stubborn daughter of the prominent surgeon Dr. Hubert van der Mal that decides to leave her the upper-class family to enter to a convent, expecting to work as nun in Congo with tropical diseases. She says good-bye to her sisters Louise and Marie; to her brother Pierre; and to her beloved father, and subjects herself to the stringent rules of the retrograde institution, including interior silent and excessive humbleness and humiliation. After a long period working in a mental institution, Gaby is finally assigned to go to Congo, where she works with the Atheist and cynical, but brilliant, Dr. Fortunati. Sister Luke proves to be very efficient nurse and assistant, and Dr. Fortunati miraculous heals her tuberculosis. Years later, she is ordered to return to Belgium and when her motherland is invaded by the Germans, she learns that her beloved father was murdered by the enemy while he was helping wounded members of the resistance. Sister ... Written by Claudio Carvalho, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


Her Faith Remained Strong and True in the Face of Africa's Terrors! See more »




Not Rated | See all certifications »






Release Date:

18 July 1959 (USA) See more »

Also Known As:

Historia de una monja See more »

Filming Locations:

Belgium See more »


Box Office


$3,500,000 (estimated)
See more on IMDbPro »

Company Credits

Production Co:

Warner Bros. See more »
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Technical Specs


Sound Mix:

Mono (RCA Sound Recording)


Color (Technicolor)

Aspect Ratio:

1.78 : 1
See full technical specs »

Did You Know?


The film was shot on location in Rome, Bruges, Stanleyville and a real leper colony in the Congo. See more »


When the patient in the Congo hospital is being attended by several people, the voice of the actor playing the patient is obviously dubbed over by actor Dean Jagger, who plays Sister Luke's father in the film. See more »


[first lines]
Narrator: "He that shall lose his life for me shall find it. If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast and give to the poor, and come follow me." Each sister shall understand that on entering the convent, she has made the sacrifice of her life to God.
See more »


Referenced in The Audrey Hepburn Story (2000) See more »


Voi Che Sapete
from "The Marriage of Figaro"
Written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (as W. A. Mozart)
Played by Gabi and her father on the piano, and recurring throughout the film's score.
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Frequently Asked Questions

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User Reviews

Makes For Beautiful Nun's Story
30 September 2012 | by marcin_kukuczkaSee all my reviews

The image of water gradually sharpens the reflections of objects above...as soon as we get to know the leading character of NUN'S STORY, it is not hard to predict that it is all going to be an involving, mesmerizing viewing experience - yet, nothing for the vast majority of audience.

In the eyes of her father, Dr Van Der Mal (Dean Jagger), our protagonist - young Gabrielle (Audrey Hepburn) is not really a strong willed girl obedient to the bells. Perhaps he sees other future for her. However, she makes up her mind to resign from engagement with one Jean and sacrifice her life for interior and exterior silence, for the detachment of worldly goods, for obedience and penance doing good and disappearing for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Although she manages to go through the agonies of various inner struggles and tests, will she be able to exercise and bring into action the spirit of charity for all, to face Christianity's hardest obedience - forgive everyone, all evil-doers for anything harmful done to them or their beloved ones?

The truest merit of Fred Zinneman's movie, at first sight, seems to lie in the execution of the storyline (the film's literary source is the book by Kathryn Hulme). It is, as the title implies, a nun's story not so much supplied with laughable aspects (as it is the case with a number of movies nowadays) but a very insightful, thought provoking depiction of virtues enforced and exercised behind the 'bars' of the convent. With this in mind, we deservedly prepare for an excellent glimpse of the atmospheric mystique, for prayers, hymns clothed in unearthly tunes of sublime music. Here, great credit goes not only to the cinematographer Franz Planer, a winner at Academy Awards, who supplies us with cinematographic pearls, including the tremendously effective shots of interior silence of the specific place, but also to Franz Waxman for his brilliantly atmospheric, accurate and vibrant music score. He memorably incorporates certain tunes derived from almost 'iconic' chants to particular scenes. In this way, the score sets the right tone for the story, changes and controls the moods of various scenes. That refers to such pieces of music as 'Salve Regina' and 'Veni Creator Spiritus' - milestones of Christian music.

However, the greatest praise is not deservedly directed towards the crew members, even to the director Fred Zinneman but to Audrey Hepburn in the lead. It seems quite obvious that not every actress can play a nun convincingly. Simply because we, as viewers with certain background experiences (both visual and conceptual), are heavily influenced by certain expectations, even clichéd expectations. In that respect, Ms Hepburn really meets our expectations...more to say, she makes for a perfect portrayal of a nun. There is a combination of certainty and doubt, subtlety and strictness in her face and her entire portrayal, which makes her character easily empathized with. Because the gist that lies behind the fact who Gabrielle/Sister Lukas really is appears to be underlined in her struggles to learn obedience and humility. These virtues that are so memorably and timelessly revealed in Culpa and Penance evoke in her performance. Ms Hepburn portrays a very human character, a very gentle young girl, a subtle nun and a dedicated nurse. Simply a superb performance! A sophisticated portrayal! She is funny at times (mind you the lovely scene with little Felix) and genuinely dramatic when the moment requires that perfectly switching from one bunch of emotions to another. If I were to name her best scenes, I think that task would be quite impossible. I would highlight some of her most memorable scenes, which include the entrance to the convent, the Congo sequence, her collaboration with Dr Fortunati (Peter Finch) vs. the scenes with her father.

The aforementioned Congo sequence belongs to the true pearls among the color films of the late 1950s. Authentic, beautiful shots of nature and landscape, the gloomy scene on the isle of the lepers along with the haunting score long lasts in the memory of a viewer. The film is worth viewing, apart from Ms Hepburn masterful achievement, for the sequence alone.

The supporting cast include some solid performances from Peter Finch as choleric but caring Dr Fortunati, Dean Jagger as wonderful Dr Von Der Mal, Gabrielle's father (what a brilliant father that is who says: "I don't want to be proud of you; I want you to be happy!") and the sisters are uniquely memorable (you will never mix the characters due to their specific features underlined): Peggy Ashcroft as Mother Mathilde, Edith Evans as Mother Emmanuel, Rosalie Crutchley (note Acte from QUO VADIS) as Sister Eleanor. They are recognizable.

Finally, let me quote Bosley Crowther, the New York Times reviewer, who said about the film: "Mr. Zinnemann has made this off-beat drama describe a parabola of spiritual afflatus and deflation that ends in a strange sort of defeat. For the evident point of this experience is that a woman gains but also loses her soul, spends and exhausts her devotion to an ideal she finds she cannot hold."

But what is superior in one's life? Blind obedience to an ideal or being true to oneself? Where are we in that dilemma? Where is our protagonist? What does the final drama indicate? Greater torments or relief? She turns right as she leaves so perhaps...

Dare accuse yourself of seeing it critically but let yourself see it and think. Although the movie is more than half a century old, it has not lost its charm and entertainment along with all the dilemmas herein incorporated. Worth viewing as not only a nun's story but a person's drama.

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