A Woman Comes To
Terms With Herself
Director: Fred Zinneman
Writers: Robert Anderson – Screenplay, Kathryn Hulme – Book
Reviewed by Hugh Aaron in 1959
Audrey Hepburn, being an actress of unusual growth capacities, has found in this unusual motion picture an opportunity to reach for and accomplish a role that few movie vehicles are able to offer. For it is about a woman becoming a Nun in a strict Belgian order which requires total self-abnegation of the human inner life, as well as material things, and performing as a nurse in a Belgian mental institution, then as a surgeon’s assistant in the Congo. The story concerns a woman’s inner life; it is the woman.
It is about the inner conflict of her wish to sacrifice herself to God, and her need to express herself as an individual, to feel all the human feelings that relentlessly exist within her, such as pride, and nostalgia, and personal satisfaction in achievement. The conflict, which begins shortly after she enters the convent as an adolescent and continues through her first vows and those that follow as steps in a Nun’s growth, becomes unmanageable within her. Out of the need to be honest to herself, she disavows her Nunhood and enters the un-Christian battle of life in the secular world.
It is a story of failure. The women of the convent, who were successful in their renunciation of worldly life, are like unattainable mountain peaks with inner cores of solid rock. Their dedication to their calling is the ultimate, rewarding them with a peace and strength that are truly moving. As if from an underground spring humanity flows from their discipline. They have the patience of ages and the control of a precision instrument. Dame Edith Evans, Dame Peggy Ashcroft, Mildred Dunnock, and everyone else portraying the Nuns offer remarkable representations of these women. Sister Luke, the principal Nun of the story, fails to measure up to their dedication despite her rigid adherence to ritual.
It is also a story of success—the success of a woman coming to terms with herself. Sister Luke (Audrey Hepburn) knows her limitations; her inner penance due to them is worse than that inflicted on her by the order. When she comes to accept herself, her resulting decision to leave the convent and its mission is a sacrifice comparable in magnitude to that required by the order.
It is also the victory of the worldly over the otherworldly, the real over the ideal. It contrasts the prevailing thinking of our time, forced on us by its inherent brutality and tension, by the need to smote the other’s cheek, with the proposition of turning our own.
Beyond the exquisite performances, the intelligent writing, and the picture’s portrayal of character and offering of ideas in depth, it is a work of art. It presents a human truth, and a religious truth. As with most works of art, it lacks perfection, mostly in its construction.
Divisible into two distinct parts, the movie is too long. The first part, concerning the tribulations of becoming a Nun, is hardly a story at all, only a pictorial course on the subject. It is monotonous and static.
The second part, which deals with Sister Luke’s activities in the Congo, involves a cynical doctor, (Peter Finch) religiously devoted to his practice, who loves and respects the Nun. This portion of the story has movement, and satisfies.
Another defect derives from the moviemaker’s striving for perfection, giving the movie a neat, un-human, untrue-to-life quality. It all seems too planned, worked over, formalized into a polished gem. But this is characteristic of Hollywood’s way of doing things. Even so, it is worth going along with this perfection because it recounts a woman’s profound experience with which an audience can empathize.