Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Five Best Movies About Nuns

There are a number of memorable films about nuns or featuring nuns in prominent roles. They include warbling nuns (e.g., The Sound of Music, The Singing Nun, Airport 1975), maternal nuns (The Trouble With Angels), and nuns who play sports (Come to the Stables, The Bells of St. Mary's). There are serious films (Black Narcissus, The Nun's Story), comedies (Bedazzled), and biographies (Song of Bernadette, Therese). There's even an Elvis Presely movie with nuns (Change of Habit). Of course, one must be careful in listing nun movies, because in some cases the nuns turned out not to be nuns at all (Two Mules for Sister Sara). The list below is limited to films from the classic era only. As with all the "Five Best" lists, recommended additions are welcomed!

Sister Ruth, not looking like a nun here,
approaching the bells.
1.  Black Narcissus - This Powell & Pressberger masterpiece stars Deborah Kerr as a nun sent to a remote village in the Himalayas to start a hospital and a school. A thematically rich film, it features brilliant performances and is enhanced by the most glorious color photography ever captured on celluloid.

2.  Lilies of the Field - A group of German nuns in a small Arizona town convince a wanderer (Sidney Poitier) to do a roof repair—which eventually results in him building a chapel for them. Yes, Poitier won the Oscar for this and he’s terrific—but he’s matched by Lilia Skala as the Mother Superior. The language difference is the source of much unexpected humor. This is a lovely little film about faith and perseverance.

Ingrid Bergman earned a Best Actress
nomintation for her performance.
3.  The Bells of St. Mary’s - Bing Crosby recreated his Oscar-winning role as Father O’Malley (“Just dial ‘O’ for O’Malley”) in this sequel to Going My Way. But this film belongs to Ingrid Bergman, who anchors it with her captivating, warm performance as Sister Mary Benedict. It’s an incredibly natural performance and her climatic scene with Crosby may be Ingrid’s finest moment on film.

4.  Come to the Stable - Loretta Young and Celeste Holm play French nuns who settle in the New England town of Bethlehem with the goal of building a children’s hospital—but they have no money, no land, and no one to help. A charming film that works its magic in subtle ways, even if the outcome is never in doubt.

Audrey Hepburn was also
nominated for Best Actress.
5.  The Nun’s Story - Aubrey Hepburn gives one of her best performances in this tale of the hardships faced by a young nun. The heart of the film takes place in the Belgian Congo, where Sister Luke assists a physician (Peter Finch) in treating lepers. However, it’s the opening and closing scenes that linger the longest with me.

Honorable Mentions: The Sound of Music (a culture phenomenon in the played for my hometown for a year!); The Trouble With Angels (with Rosalind Russell plays Mother Superior of a girls’ boarding girl and Hayley Mills as the resident troublemaker, and Bedazzled (with Dudley Moore as a nun).


  1. Rick, a great post. I can't imagine anyone would take exception to your choices. Deborah Kerr was wonderful in "Black Narcissus," her greatest early performance. I especially like the flashback parts that show how she became a nun. It IS beautifully photographed. I once heard an executive of the Technicolor Corp. call this on TCM the best use of Technicolor ever. I saw "Come to the Stable" on TV as a youngster and thought it wonderful. I especially like the bit about the songwriter unconsciously turning the religious chant into a love song! According to the site, Young said that Irene Dunne was originally supposed to play her part, with Young doing the Celeste Holm part. "The Nun's Story"--another gorgeously photographed film with great performances by the entire cast. The first half hour or so is almost a fascinating dramatized documentary, Hepburn, who often relied on her charm to carry her, proved she could really act when motivated, which this role clearly did. Now you've got me thinking about pictures about priests. Before I forget, how about "Nuns of the Run" as the funniest, most irreverent, and just plain silliest nun movie?

  2. Enlightening, as always. I was SURE, with such a limited topic as "nuns," that I'd have more to contribute to the conversation. But, alas, I've only seen two of your top five choices. I can only add two recommendations but but not from the classic era, Agnes of God and the more recent, Doubt. I'd recommend everyone reading this to watch the classics first. Then, if still into the habit, venture forward to more recent entries.

    Added your choices to my ever-growing list of must-sees, Rick.



  3. Love your first two choices. I'd also put Heaven Knows Mr. Alison in there.

  4. Rick, Awesome list of "nun" films. I think "Black Narcissus" is my favorite film on your list. I loved seeing Jean Simmons, in her part. Also, this is probably one of Deborah Kerr's best performances. Jack Cardiff's award-winning color cinematography was beautiful.

  5. Great choices, as usual. BEDAZZLED of 1967 is a shriekingly funny film, and the nun episode was one of its best parts. I also recall with fondness Lillian Gish's performance as a nun in PORTRAIT OF JENNIE; it was a small role, but she brought a beautiful sense of calm spirituality to the character. There's also THE SONG OF BERNADETTE, which has an interesting ending in a convent, focusing on the nuns' jealousy of Jennifer Jones' Bernadette and her miraculous vision.

  6. Great choices -- and what a great topic! I have always heard such good things about Black Narcissus, but I've never been able to make it past the first 10 minutes or so. But I am vowing now, after reading your post, to give another try! (Right after Arsenic and Old Lace . . . shhh . . .)

  7. Great recommended additions! I own HEAVEN KNOWS, MR. ALLISON and PORTRAIT OF JENNIE is one of my favorite fantasies. As for BLACK NARCISSUS, it weaves its spell as the film progresses--at least, that's how it works for me. R.D., I thought of your Ken Russell two-parter when I wrote this, having seen THE DEVILS when I was a college student. I didn't care for it, but it was certainly memorable in its own way.

  8. Rick, this is truly an outstanding post. What I love about it is that it truly showcases extraordinary performances by actresses. On a personal note, my Godson, as a very young boy, loved to sit and watch "The Sound of Music" over and over again. I was fascinated by that because it is neither a short, fluffy, nor animated film.

  9. Okay, Rick, I'm a little late here (in the process of a large move at present), but I had to comment, seeing as I used to be a nun.
    I think your list is good, but I have a problem with the numbering--and one film you omitted.

    If you are looking for the most realistic film, that prize goes to The Nun's Story. You are right about the opening and closing scenes. The closing scene resonates deeply with me--every time I see it I get teary-eyed. I think this was Hepburn's best acting performance.

    Your glaring omission has to be The Song of Bernadette. It's hard to endure at times, but it is pretty accurate and Jennifer Jones is very good in it.

    Black Narcissus is a great film, but they get a little too carried away with how the nuns are portrayed. Powell and Pressberger work the repression angle to its last breaking bend.

    I like Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary--she does well representing the orphanage-nun (yes, there are types!).

    The one film on your list that I don't really like is Lilies of the Field. I don't know why exactly, but it's just not a fave of mine.

  10. You know, I'm not really sure why, but I looove movies with nuns. Black Narcissus is excellent and has beautiful lush color. I really love Nun Story (though its so long you are exhausted by the end) but I think that is the movie Audrey really deserved her Oscar for.

    And of course, we can't forget Dolores Hart-not a movie but actress turned nun. She is now mother superior! (and answers fan mail still)

  11. Thank you so much for this list! My parents saw Come to the Stable years ago and have wanted to buy it but couldn't remember the name of it. After searching through various lists I finally found it! Thanks again, my parents will be very happy.