Sisters on the screen: 20 films about convent life

The Convent Gate – from an old promotional postcard

To mark today’s screening of Black Narcissus as part of the series of Exeter Screen Talks, I wanted to celebrate twenty films about convent life. The emphasis is on movies that make some serious attempt at portraying religious life, and I have therefore ignored those with fake nuns (A Mule for Sister Sarah (1970) and Più forte sorelle (Renzo Spaziani, 1973) as well as the more lurid examples of the nunsploitation genre (Behind Convent Walls (1978), Sacred Flesh (1999) etc) but at the end of the day the selection is a personal one and is as arbitrary and subjective as can be.

The Convent Gate (Wilfrid Noy, 1913)

Straightaway I’m cheating by writing about a film that I haven’t seen. It’s been estimated that between 75-90% of silent films were destroyed or disappeared, and sadly The Convent Gate was one of them. My interest was piqued when I came across this postcard at a flea market some years ago, and I wrote a little bit about it in a previous post.

The White Sister (Henry King, 1923)

Ten years later Lilian Gish starred in this adaptation of F. Marion Crawford’s 1909 novel The White Sister. It had been filmed already in 1915 with Viola Allen in the title role, as star-crossed Italian lover Angela Chiaromonte who enters religious life after a series of tragic events, plotting and misunderstandings. Ronald Colman played her lover, Captain Giovanni Severini.

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Lilian Gish in ‘The White Sister’ (1923)

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Helen Hayes as Angela Chiaromonte in ‘The White Sister’ (Victor Fleming, 1933)

The story is set in Italy and ends with the climactic eruption of Vesuvius. While in Sorrento five years ago I came across a street named after Crawford – he moved here in the 1880s and knew the area well.

The White Sister (Victor Fleming, 1933)

In the third screen adaptation of Crawford’s novel Angela was played by Helen Hayes, who was about to make her name playing Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Victoria on Broadway. Colman’s role was taken here by Clark Gable.

I’ll skip quickly over The Song of Bernadette (Henry King, 1943) as it was the subject of a recent post which you can read here.


Les Anges du Péché (Robert Bresson, 1943)Comparisons are often drawn between the work of Bresson and Bill Douglas, both of whom excelled in the use of poetic imagery with minimal dialogue. Bresson was still finding his style with Les Anges du Péché, his first feature film, made in wartime France in collaboration with Dominican friar Fr. Raymond Bruckberger O.P. and playwright Jean Giraudoux. ‘Angels of Sin’ follows events in a religious community dedicated to rehabilitating women prisoners, but it is easy to see the German occupation of France as influencing the themes of incarceration and vengeance killing.

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Les Anges du Péché
This may be early Bresson, but it is well worth a watch: as Oliver Assayas has said of Bresson, ‘He is what keeps me faithful to what cinema can achieve. In moments of discouragement, he reminds me how great films can be.’

Bells of Saint Mary’s (Leo McCarey, 1945)

Ingrid Bergman and Bing Crosby star in this drama as Sister Mary Benedict and Father Charles O’ Malley, fighting to save their city school from closure. Both of them get to sing in the movie of course, Bergman singing the traditional Swedish folksong Varvindar Friska (Spring Breezes) and Crosby crooning the title song (along with a choir of nuns) and others. The movie is used in the film The Magdalene Sisters (Peter Mullan, 2002) with bitter irony – the sweet nuns of the 1945 film contrasting harshly with the cruel, somewhat cartoonish villains of Mullan’s tale.

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Ingrid Bergman as Sister Mary Benedict in Bells of Saint Mary’s (Leo McCarey, 1945) with Bing Crosby
Black Narcissus (Powell & Pressburger, 1947)

One of my favourite films of all time, and my strongest recommendation of all those listed here, Black Narcissus is based on Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel and tells the story of a community of nuns opening a convent in the Indian Himalayas. As with so much of Powell and Pressburger’s work, the film is imbued with a strong sense of place and an awareness of the effect of location on human behaviour: the lush sensuality of the landscape (filmed in vibrant Technicolor by Jack Cardiff) and the erotic history of the convent building (a former seraglio) seem to draw out the emotional tensions and desires of the nuns – in particular Sister Ruth (below.)

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Those eyes, that mouth…. Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh in ‘Black Narcissus’

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The Himalayan landscape was suggested through the use of magnificent matte paintings, as the above pictures reveal

The magnificent cast also includes Deborah Kerr, Flora Robson, Jean Simmons, Esmond Knight and a surly, swaggering David Farrar.

Come to the Stable (Henry Koster, 1949)

Another tale of nuns moving into an unfamiliar location, but very different in tone, Come to the Stable starred Loretta Young and Celeste Holm as two French nuns trying to establish a foundation in Bethlehem, Connecticut. Unlike the plot of The Bells of St Mary’s the nuns don’t resort to trickery to achieve their goals…

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Sister Scholastica (left, Celeste Holm) and Sister Margaret (right, Loretta Young) in a scene from ‘Come to the Stable’

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Sister Josephine (Connie Gilchrist) and Sister Mary (Claudette Colbert)

Thunder on the Hill (Douglas Sirk, 1951)

This who-dunnit is set in a storm-lashed Norfolk convent, where convicted murderess Valerie Carns (Ann Blythe) gets marooned by the weather while en route to the gallows. (Ruth Ellis, the last woman hanged in Britain, died four years later, in 1955.) Claudette Colbert plays Sister Mary, a young nun who begins to have doubts about Valerie’s guilt – setting her on course to clash with the Mother Superior (Gladys Cooper.)

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Corporal Allison (MItchum) and Sister Angela (Kerr)

Heaven Knows, Mr Allison (John Huston, 1957)

Having played the Sister Superior in Black Narcissus, Deborah Kerr was demoted to the status of a novice in this film, in which she is stranded together with US marine Robert Mitchum on a Pacific island during WWII. They have to deal with lack of food, fever, Japanese soldiers and – of course – each other, while waiting to be rescued. Both stars give tremendous performances, while the exotic location (much of it was filmed in Tobago) provides a lush backdrop to the poignancy and drama of their situation.

The Nun’s Story (Fred Zinnemann, 1959)

Based on Kathryn Hulme’s 1956 novel, The Nun’s Story follows Sister Luke (Audrey Hepburn) as she struggles to deal with inner conflict as a medical nun working in Africa. As with The White Sister and Black Narcissus, there are hints of an unresolved romance haunting her decision to enter the convent, but Sister Luke also has to deal with issues regarding obedience and her duties towards her family and homeland after the Nazis invade Belgium while she is working in Africa. It’s one of the best films for a serious exploration of the real issues involved in taking the veil.

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Sister Luke (Audrey Hepburn) and friend
Le Dialogue des Carmelites
(Philippe Agostini, 1960) This was another wartime project of Fr Bruckberger O.P., based on Gertrud le Fort’s novel about a community of Carmelite nuns who were martyred at Compiegne in 1789 during the French Revolution. George Bernanos wrote additional dialogue – much of which was later dropped – and stage and opera versions were produced before the screenplay finally made it to the screen. Jeanne Moreau played Mère Marie de l’Incarnation.
Mother Joan of the Angels
(Jerzy Kawalerowicz, 1961) Based on the same story about the possessed nuns of Loudun that inspired Ken Russell’s film ten years later, Mother Joan of the Angels is much less well known: this is a shame, as it’s an absolute masterpiece, subtle in all the places where Russell is extravagant, yet containing a wealth of stark, stunning imagery and poetic visuals.

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Le Dialogue des Carmelites (1960)

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A scene from Matka Joanna od Aniolow (Mother Joan of the Angels)

Lilies of the Field (Ralph Nelson, 1963)

This film provided Sidney Poitier with his first Oscar, playing wandering handyman Homer Smith who finds work (but no wages) helping out a struggling community of nuns from German and Eastern Europe. The title of the film is taken from Matthew 6:28-30, which Mother Maria (Lilia Skala) quotes in response to Homer’s request to be paid.

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The nuns get excited about a phonograph in ‘Lilies of the Field.’
The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965)

Maria von Trapp’s memoir The Story of the Trapp Family Singers provided the basis for a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical which was in turn adapted for the screen by 20th Century Fox. Julie Andrews played Maria, a novice nun who leaves the convent for a while to work as a governess to an Austrian family of seven children, and ends up leaving religious life and marrying their widowed father. Some of the exterior scenes were shot at the convent of Nonnberg in Salzburg.

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Maria…not ‘an asset to the abbey’? A scene from ‘The Sound of Music’

The Nun (Jacques Rivette, 1966)

Denis Diderot’s novel La Religieuse, published in 1796, offers a profound critique not only of religious life and Catholicism but also of the constraints placed upon women in 18th century society. Diderot’s simple tale recounts the sufferings of a young girl, Suzanne Simonin, who is forced into the convent by her family. French New Wave director Jacques Rivette adapted the novel for the stage before revising it for the screen, in both versions casting Jean Luc Godard’s then-wife Anna Karina as Suzanne. It remains quite stagey, with its slow pace and unadorned style, but it’s deeply moving and heartbreaking in its depiction of Suzanne’s ordeals as she experiences religious life under three Mother Superiors – the kindly Madame de Moni (Micheline Presle), cruel Sister Sainte-Christine (Francine Berge) and the ardent Madame de Chelles (Liselotte Pulver.) The film was remade by Guillaume Nicloux in 2013 with Isabelle Huppert playing Suzanne.

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Sister Suzanne (Anna Karina, on left) falls foul of the new regime in ‘La Religieuse’ (1966)

The Trouble with Angels (Ida Lupino, 1966)

Returning to the present day and a lighter vein, The Trouble with Angels was set in an American convent school where rebellious pupils Hayley Mills and June Harding try to outwit the Mother Superior (Rosalind Russell), only to find that they underestimate the nun’s wisdom and wiles. The success of the film inspired a rather lacklustre sequel, Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows (James Neilson, 1968.)

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Mary (Mills) and Rachel (Harding) meet their match
The Singing Nun (Henry Koster, 1966)

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Debbie Reynolds as Sister Ann in ‘The Singing Nun’

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Lobby card of a scene from ‘The Singing Nun’

‘The Singing Nun’ was the popular name given to Sister Luc-Gabrielle O.P., also known as Jeanne Deckers (1933-85), a Dominican nun from Belgium who released several records including the No.1 single ‘Dominique’ (1963.) The movie is a sweetly fictionalised portrait of Deckers, whose life subsequently took a tragic dive downwards into depression, drug abuse and suicide.

Change of Habit (William Graham, 1969)

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Sister Michelle (Mary Tyler Moore) and Doctor John Carpenter (Elvis Presley) in ‘Change of Habit’

Elvis Presley’s final fictional movie role saw him play a doctor in a run-down area who is unaware that three co-workers – Michelle Gallagher (Mary Tyler Moore), Irene (Barbara McNair) and Barbara (Jane Elliott) are in fact nuns who have shed their habits in order to gain the trust of the parishioners they are trying to help. The movie, as one would expect, contains romantic entanglements and lots of Elvis songs.

As a by-the-by, it is perhaps worth mentioning that another of Elvis Presley’s co-stars, Dolores Hart – who played opposite ‘The King’ in Lovin’ You (1957) and King Creole (1958) – entered a real-life convent in 1963 and later became the Prioress of Regina Laudis Priory in Connecticut.

The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971)

It’s been over forty years since the release of The Devils but Ken Russell’s extraordinary and disturbing work has retained its reputation as one of the most shocking movies ever made in Britain. The scenes of orgiastic violence are graphic and unrelenting, but shot with the high command of visual aesthetics that one would expect from production designer Derek Jarman. Although Vanessa Redgrave played Mother Jeanne of the Angels, the role had been originally offered to Glenda Jackson. However, after playing the female leads in Russell’s Women in Love (1969) and The Music Lovers (1970), a third erotically-charged performance might have been excessive (even for them.) As a representation of convent life The Devils cannot evade the charge of sensationalism – it’s a orgy of Grand Guignol grotesquerie and Gothic horror – but it explores aspects of religious psychology and the interior life that are barely touched by the other films listed here. Go there if you dare.

Nasty Habits (Michael Lindsay-Hogg, 1977)

It wasn’t long Jackson got another chance at playing a nun, and this time she accepted the offer: Nasty Habits is based on Muriel Spark’s novel The Abbess of Crewe: A Modern Morality Tale (1974), which took the then highly-topical story of the Watergate scandal (1972-74) and transposed its component parts into a Benedictine convent where a power-hungry nun is plotting to fix her election as abbess. The film version shifts the setting from Crewe to Philadelphia and assembled a star-studded cast that included Edith Evans as the old Abbess Hildegard whose death leaves a power-vacuum, Glenda Jackson as the ambitious Sister Alexandra (i.e. Nixon) and Geraldine Page and Anne Jackson as her accomplices Sisters Walburga and Mildred, who break into the sewing basket of her rival Sister Felicity (Susan Penhaligon) in order to steal a cache of love letters. Allegations of bugging and bribery lead to Vatican involvement, and those familiar with the Watergate story will enjoy identifying the characters and events being parodied.

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Pre-election skulduggery in ‘Nasty Habits’ (1977) – a topical note on which to end this week’s blog!

Silent Cloisters

Following on from last month’s post about nuns photographs, I have looked out a postcard this time of a scene from the silent film The Convent Gate (1913.) This was directed by Wilfred Noy and adapted from a scenario written by Marchioness Townsend (1884-1959) that involved a jilted bride, insanity and a life-threatening blaze, in addition to the nunnery.  In her autobiography It Was – and it Wasn’t (1937) the Marchioness revealed how the screenplay was developed with the help of a model theatre in her garden and cardboard cut-out nuns. Whether or not this led to two-dimensional characterisation, this postcard makes me sorry that The Convent Gate has not survived. 


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The film’s leading lady, Dorothy Bellew (right), was photographed by Bassano four years later – and she certainly does not look like a nun in this portrait.


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This postcard shows a scene from The Monk and the Woman , which was released four years after The Convent Gate. On the left is Australian actress Maud Fane, playing Liane, a young French girl who finds shelter in a monastery while trying to escape the attentions of lecherous Prince de Montrale. The character on the right is young monk Brother Paul, played by Percy Marmont. Brother Paul has been given the job of watching over Liane, but (surprise!) ends up falling in love with her, leading him to clash with his abbot, the prince and the king….

Both the play and film caused controversy when released in Australia, being condemned by Archbishop Michael Kelly of Sydney. An austere prelate of puritan piety, Kelly remained at odds with the modern world all his life. He argued that The Monk and the Woman presented a distorted view of Catholicism that was offensive to the faithful; his views were supported by the Australian Catholic Federation, whose members boycotted screenings and applied pressure on advertisers to withdraw their custom. Critics, on the other hand, applauded the warmth and humanity shown in the film, as well as the performances by Fane and Marmont. Again, I’m disappointed to find that this film too is considered lost.


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This is a still from Häxan: witchcraft through the ages (1922) an extraordinary silent film in seven chapters by Danish director Benjamin Christensen. Thankfully, this film has survived and is easily accessible on DVD: I’ve had the opportunity to watch it many times and it still retains the power to shock and mesmerize. Mixing documentary segments, slide lectures and dramatized horror sequences – including infanticide, witches’ sabbaths and the torture of suspected witches – the film has an avant-garde, surrealist feel that accentuates its nightmarish subject. Inevitably, however, this weakens Christensen’s rationalist argument: if his aim was to condemn medieval superstition and ignorance, why spend so much of the film experiencing false visions, and imbuing them with a power that only enhances viewers’ horrified fascination? 

Anyway, even if we regret and abhor the cruelty of religious persecution, and the sufferings caused by ignorance, I doubt the sort of secular rationalism advocated by Christensen would really have helped matters in medieval Europe.  Ninety years have passed since he made Häxan and aspects of his solution appear almost as dated as the medieval mindset he mocked. Christensen’s attempt to compare witch’s behaviour to that of hysterics treated by Professor Charcot (Chapter Seven) is one particularly unconvincing argument – Charcot’s category of ‘hysteria’ has now as much credibility as the demonic creatures depicted during the witches’ ritual in Häxan.  Christensen can be forgiven for that, though, as he raises some challenging points about the misuse of power and shows real compassion for the unfortunate women, old and young, who became victims of witch trials. 


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The film is fairly anti-clerical throughout, portraying gross, lustful and gluttonous friars in addition to the cruel Inquisitors. A short sequence set in a convent shows the devil (played by Christensen himself) causing appearing to one of the nuns and inciting her to stab a consecrated host – an outrage that throws the rest of the community into a frenzy of writhing and, well, hysteria.


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The resulting scenes of bedlam bear strong similarities to those in the late Ken Russell’s film The Devils (1973), which was based on Aldous Huxley’s books, The Nuns of Loudun, although the events in Loudun took place over 100 years after those depicted in Häxan. In his rendering of church interiors and religious garb, Christensen is to be commended for his attention to detail and efforts at historical accuracy. 

Le Chagrin d’Amour

Following on from the last post, this is another image of a nun seated in her cloister garden, but this time with the soft pastel shades of romantic sentiment. Clearly a studio creation, I like how the prop artists have applied a few daubs of brown paint to try and link the autumn leaves at her feet with the tree on the painted background behind her. Blatant artifice aside, it is an exquisite image nonetheless and I was delighted to pick this up at a postcard fair earlier in the year.


A Nun of Anglot

Recently I came across this unusual cdv, showing a Bernardine nun at a French convent at Anglot, a small village between the rival cities of Bayonne and Biarritz. The convent was founded in the 1830s, some twenty years before Napoleon III drew attention to Biarritz by building the Empress Eugenie a summer residence there.  An aristocratic Australian, Lady Fairlie Cunninghame, wrote about the Bernardines at Anglot in the 1890s, noting: “Photography is another of their industries, and very good photographs of the sisters and the convent, done by themselves, can be boughthere, as well as dolls, dressed in the habit ot the order, and many other prettily made ornaments and bits of work.” [Brisbane Courier 21 June 1892.] I suspect this photograph may have been taken by one of the nuns around this time. How did the humble sisters deal with the temptation?