Veiled Desires – Maureen A Sabine

Some of my favourite movies are about nuns. Black Narcissus, The Nun’s Story, In This House of Brede are all movies I’ve watched many times. Maureen A Sabine’s new book is a study of the way nuns have been portrayed in mainstream cinema since the 1940s. To give you an idea of the scope of this scholarly but accessible book, this is how the author describes her work,

I hope to contribute a deeper dimension to the feminist and historical study that has already been done on nuns as a neglected category of women, and to enrich the cultural study of their religious and institutional roles through the addition of my literary, psychoanalytic, and theological perspective to the analysis of how the screen nun’s desires traverse the boundaries separating religious life from secular, modern life, a sacred vocation from the call of the world, and agapaic from erotic love.

The movies are discussed in chronological order from The Bells of St Mary’s in 1945 to Doubt in 2008. Sabine gives an excellent account of the history of the Church over these decades to set the movies in the context of changes in the Church & society. It was fascinating to look at these movies in the context of the reasons women had for entering a convent, the differences between the contemplative & missionary orders & the way that the movies deliberately set up conflict between the religious life & the attractions of the secular world. The stereotype of the nun as a frustrated woman hiding from the world or living out her dreams of power in the only environment open to her is explored against the depiction of the Church as a patriarchal oppressor of these women. Sabine also explores the feminist reaction to these movies which has often been dismissive of the portrayal of the nun as a submissive servant or titillating sex object.

Veiled Desires is such a rich source of material for discussion that I’m just going to mention a few points from the chapters on my three favourite movies. Black Narcissus is based on the novel by Rumer Godden. It’s the story of a group of Anglican nuns who are sent to set up a hospital & mission in the Himalayas. The mission is led by Sister Clodagh, a relatively young woman who entered the convent after the man she loved didn’t propose marriage. The nuns have been given a house that was once the harem of the local Prince on the top of a mountain. The atmosphere affects them all, the constant wind & the erotic paintings on the walls stir their thoughts & emotions. The local agent, Mr Dean, is a sarcastic man who predicts failure for the mission & is dismissive of the help the nuns try to provide with their school & their hospital.

Black Narcissus explores the way the nuns are changed by the Himalayas. Sister Clodagh, played by Deborah Kerr, finds herself remembering her unhappy love affair & her self-confidence is dented as she realises the challenges of her role as head of the mission. She is challenged by Mr Dean but also by Sister Ruth, whose emotional state deteriorates when she becomes fixated on Mr Dean. In one scene, Sister Clodagh is confronted by Sister Ruth, who has abandoned the habit, dressed in a red dress & applying lipstick, flaunting her sexuality. The mission has an unhappy end after a village child dies after receiving treatment by the nuns & Sister Ruth attempts to kill Sister Clodagh. The movie attracted criticism from American Catholics who were appalled by the way the nuns were presented but it does explore the emotional cost of being a nun. Celibacy & obedience are difficult challenges.

Obedience would be the downfall of Sister Luke in The Nun’s Story. This is such a beautiful movie. I especially love the first half which is almost documentary-like as it shows Sister Luke’s journey as a novice & a postulent. Audrey Hepburn’s beautiful, expressive face is the focus of almost every scene. Gabrielle Van Der Mal is a young Belgian girl in the 1920s who enters the convent with the aim of nursing in the Congo which was then a Belgian colony. Her father was a famous surgeon & her life was one of privilege. However, nursing wouldn’t necessarily be an appropriate career for a young woman of her class and so, she becomes a nun. Sister Luke’s struggles with obedience begin early as she disobeys a misguided superior who instructs her to fail an exam on purpose as an act of obedience & charity to a less fortunate sister. Sister Luke’s pride won’t allow her to do this. Her first medical posting in an asylum is also marred by disobedience when she disregards a rule & is almost killed by a patient.

Eventually, she is posted to the Congo but, even then, finds she must work in the European hospital rather than on the mission station where she hoped to be sent. Her work in the hospital brings her into conflict with Church hierarchy as she singularises herself in her work with the native porters. She also meets a brilliant man, Dr Fortunati, who challenges her every step of the way & whom she is emotionally attracted to. Sabine uses The Nun’s Story as a way of exploring the vow of obedience which is at the heart of every nun’s commitment in religious life. Eventually, Sister Luke finds the vow of obedience too much after her return to Europe & the death of her father by the Germans during WWII.

In This House of Brede, a TV movie made in the 1970s, was also based on a book by Rumer Godden. She didn’t like either of the movies based on her books, incidentally. Philippa Talbot (Diana Rigg) is a successful career woman struggling with a personal tragedy when she decides to enter the Benedictine house at Brede Abbey. The Benedictines are a contemplative order with very little contact with the outside world & Philippa is looking towards service to God to try to forget herself & her unhappy memories. Her growing peace is shattered by the arrival of a young novice, Joanna, who reminds her strongly of her own daughter, also called Joanna, who was killed in an accident.

The movie reflects the situation of many convents in the 1970s when the number of vocations was dropping as the sexual revolution & feminism made it less attractive for a young woman to enter a convent. The admission of older women who may have been married or had children caused different problems in an enclosed community as is seen here by Philippa’s combative relationship with Dame Agnes, an older nun who entered as a very young girl & is both threatened by Philippa’s worldliness & jealous of her. Philippa also has a supportive friendship with the new Reverend Mother, Dame Catherine, which raises questions about the need to love all the sisters equally with no special friendships allowed. The movie simplifies the original novel with its large cast of characters to just these four women (which is what annoyed Rumer Godden) but I’m very fond of it.

There’s so much more in Veiled Desires than I have room for in a brief review. I wish I could mention Sabine’s discussions of the image of the actresses who played nuns & the way that affected how the movies were received eg Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St Mary’s, Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music or Mary Tyler Moore in Change of Habit. Change of Habit also leads to an interesting discussion about the social changes of the 1960s & the impact of Vatican II. Then there are the movies where nuns are thrown together with men on tropical islands (Heaven Knows, Mr Allison with Deborah Kerr again) or on lifeboats (Sea Wife with Joan Collins) & the issues explored in these movies of celibacy & respect for the religious habit & the invisibility of a woman wearing the habit. This is a rich book which will send you back to the movies discussed with fresh eyes.

I read Veiled Desires courtesy of NetGalley.

6 thoughts on “Veiled Desires – Maureen A Sabine

  1. This sounds like my cup of tea – I have a bit of a thing for nuns! Seriously, though, Black Narcissus is one of my favourite films. Also seen The Sound of Music, Heaven Knows, Mr Allison (which I found quite odd) and Doubt from the ones you mention. To date, I haven't seen a bad film that includes nuns…


  2. It's a fascinating book & there was just too much that I couldn't include in the review. I found some of the theory a bit daunting but the social context was fascinating & the ways that the writers, directors & actors portrayed the complexities of being a nun in an increasingly secular world. Well worth reading if you have a thing for nuns!


  3. This sounds great and has gone on my reading list! Have you ever seen a French film called Therese, about Therese of Lisieux? It's mainly a series of beautiful shots of nuns going about their daily work. I saw it years ago in a double bill with Black Narcissus but have never met anyone else who knows it.


  4. I don't know Therese but it sounds lovely. There was a movie about the daily life of monks a few years ago, can't remember the name, that sounds similar.


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