I admit having a problem right off with the title of this movie. After all, who is THE NUN? I think common consensus would be that if you're talking about THE NUN it would have to be Mother Teresa. If not her then --I don't know, Maria von Trapp (though, I guess, she didn't achieve full nunnage) How about Heloise and her infamous romance? Or that nun who talks about paintings on public television?
Instead we have this story of A NUN; it's a fictionalized story at that. The Nun's Story was based on a novel, based on the experiences of author Kathryn Hulme's friend (Marie Louise Habets), a nun who served as a nurse in the Belgian Congo.
Audrey Hepburn plays a young Belgian woman named Gabby who takes her vows in the 1930's. The specific name of the order is never given, though the order in the novel is based on the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary, which was founded in Belgium. But we'll call this fictional order, Order X.
When Gabby's father takes her to the order, he expresses concern for her. He isn't worried about her keeping her vows of chastity or poverty, but is concerned she will have trouble keeping her vows of obedience, of answering the bells when they ring. Upon entering the convent, the father is awkwardly asked to hand over Gabby's dowry, and he complies.
Gabby is given a new name when she takes her vows, Sister Luke, which complies with her skills and duties as a nurse. She is surprised by the vows of "outward and inward silence" which greatly limit her interactions. Gabby's superiors constantly berate her for her pride. In fact, one of her superiors tells her she should intentionally fail her nursing exam to show her humility.
Intentional failing a test, saying you don't know what you do know, seems quite dishonest to me, and Gabby doesn't follow those instructions. But her superior takes Gabby's success in testing as an issue of pride and doesn't, initially, give Gabby the assignment to the Congo she desires. Gabby serves instead in a mental institution Order X runs, but eventually does go to the Congo.
There, the doctor Gabby serves with is not a believer. He appreciates Gabby's spirit and intelligence, but tells she won't last in her order because of those qualities. (That may be the case in Order X, but Mother Teresa and many other illustrious nuns were certainly not known for a lack of independent spirit and thinking.
The nuns of Order X are beloved in the Congo, Gabby especially. Sadly, the Congolese in the film are, for the most part, presented with about the same depth as the "natives" on Disney's Jungle Boat Cruise. At one point, a man kills a nun upon the instructions of his witch doctor. The nuns of Order X respond with love and forgiveness, which proves to be the highlight of their ministry in the film.
Gabby returns to Belgium (against her wishes) when World War II breaks out. Order X decides to maintain a position of neutrality when the Nazis take Belgium, in order to maintain their hospital ministry. Gabby can't go along with this. She is unable to forgive the Nazis for killing her father. She says she can't wear the cross of Christ on her chest when she has hate in her heart. This kind of service is certainly a challenge, but it is not a unique challenge in Christian history. It's sad no one in the order can give her counsel on the issue.
Throughout the film, the order is presented as a rather Pharisaical institution. Forgiveness comes only with much penance and groveling (literally prostrating oneself on the floor before the cross), and the cross of Christ seems to have limited power. When Gabby is ministering to a patient, she is expected to leave the patient, no matter what, when the bell rings for chapel.
I don't know if Order X is an accurate representation of an actual Belgian order of the past. But I very much doubt it represents all women's orders in the Catholic Church, which makes the definite article of the title highly suspect. As usual, we are not reviewing the film itself, but the religious institution in the film, so Order X gets two steeples.