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Veiled Desires

Intimate Portrayals of Nuns in Postwar Anglo-American Film

Maureen Sabine

Publication Year: 2013

Ingrid Bergman’s engaging screen performance as Sister Mary Benedict in The Bells of St. Mary’s made the film nun a minor star and her character a shining standard of comparison. She represented the religious life as the happy and rewarding choice of a modern woman who had a “complete understanding” of both erotic and spiritual desire. How did this vibrant and mature nun figure come to be viewed as girlish, naive and light-weight? Why have she and the cinematic sisters who followed her in post-war popular film so often been stereotyped or selectively analyzed, so seldom been seen as women and religious, and never been treated as subjects for full-length study? In Veiled Desires, Maureen Sabine explores these questions through an inter-disciplinary study of twelve films in depth and twenty-one in total, primarily from Hollywood, in which the nun features as an ardent lead character over a sixty-year period from the 1945 film The Bells of St. Mary’s to the 2008 film Doubt. She considers how the beautiful, photogenic and charismatic stars who played chaste nuns called attention to desires that the veil concealed and the habit was thought to stifle. In a theologically and psychoanalytically informed argument, she responds to the critics who have pigeonholed the film nun as mainly the obedient daughter and religious handmaiden of a patriarchal church with only a limited capacity for the desires of a modern woman, and the respectful audience who revered her as an icon of spiritual perfection untroubled by female embodiment, sexuality or longing. Sabine offers a new view of the film nun by suggesting how actresses like Ingrid Bergman, Deborah Kerr, Audrey Hepburn, Julie Andrews, Diana Rigg, and Susan Sarandon enact the tensions between the traditional desires of religious life known as agape and the aspirational desires valorized by Audre Lorde as eros. She re-examines films that have been controversial like Black Narcissus (1947), The Nun’s Story (1959) and Agnes of God (1985); have been both belittled and beloved like Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) and The Sound of Music (1965); that have fallen out of favor like The Bells of St. Mary’s or have wooed back a contemporary audience like Dead Man Walking (1995) and Doubt (2008). She provides a framework for a more complex and holistic picture of nuns on screen as both women and religious by showing how, to varying degrees, the films dramatize their Christian call to serve, sacrifice and dedicate themselves to God, and their erotic desire for intimacy, agency, achievement, and fulfillment.

Published by: Fordham University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. 1-6


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

I am grateful to the History Department at the University of Hong Kong, which gave me a home away from home where I could work on this book in an intellectual environment of serious engagement with religious history and culture, and in particular, to colleagues Frank Dikotter, Staci Ford, and Bert Becker who supported me ...

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pp. 1-17

If anyone has suffered from typecasting, it is the cinematic nun. Enveloped in a religious veil and habit that show her only in part and are barriers to imagining her as a whole person, she has been vulnerable to stereotypes that complete the visual process of fragmenting her on-screen.1 ...

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1. Selfless Desires: Sacrificial and Self-Fulfilling Service to Others in Casablanca (1942), The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), and The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958)

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pp. 18-58

When Ingrid Bergman appeared on-screen as Sister Mary Benedict in The Bells of St. Mary’s, she was already a major film celebrity, but she made the film nun herself a star who “light(s) up dark lives . . . with luminous Hollywood beauty” (Loudon 1993: 16). The movie reviewers in 1945 felt that Bergman succeeded in representing the Catholic nun ...

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2. Sexual Desires: Repression and Sublimation in Black Narcissus (1947), Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957), and Sea Wife (1957)

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pp. 59-108

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1947 film Black Narcissus dramatized the vocational crises of five Anglican sisters who struggle to establish a missionary foothold in the Himalayas, and the tragedy that unfolds when the neurotic Sister Ruth disintegrates under the strain, forsakes her vows, and runs amok. ...

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3. Subjective Desires: The Role of the Catholic Family Romance in The Nun’s Story (1959)

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pp. 109-160

When Audrey Hepburn appeared on-screen in 1959, looking immaculate in a black-and-white habit, the nun was still a figure veiled in mystique. This mystique derived its power from the traditional religious view that she “binds herself to a state of perfection, which requires a striving toward holiness that is . . . life-long” (Donovan and Wusinich 2008: 39). ...

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4. Sonorous Desires: Sweet, Spirited, and Stirring Voices in The Sound of Music (1965) and Change of Habit (1969)

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pp. 161-204

The Nun’s Story comes to an end in solemn silence, a silence heavy with Sister Luke’s sadness and regret at failing to become “the perfect nun . . . obedient in all things unto death.” When she leaves the convent, she does not close the door behind her. Technically, this allowed the camera, which stays behind inside the cloister, to watch her cross the threshold and walk down the alleyway into the unknown. ...

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5. Sacred Desires: Passion and Pathology in In This House of Brede (1975) and Agnes of God (1985)

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pp. 205-250

Reflecting on the effect that the Second Vatican Council had on American Catholic nuns in the 1960s, distinguished Benedictine leader and religious writer Sister Joan Chittister remarked that this decade of unprecedented change and renewal “was wonderful and it was terrible. It started with hope and excitement and ended in a lot of bitterness and difficulty for a long time.” ...

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6. Spiritual Desires: Sin, Suffering, Death, and Salvation in Dead Man Walking (1995)

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pp. 251-274

In the five previous chapters, I have explored the range and complexity of the desires that nuns unveil on-screen and shown how these subvert one view of religious life voiced by Sister Luke, that “a nun is not a person who wishes or desires.” While traditional nuns regard the selfless surrender to God in agape as their supreme purpose, ...

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Conclusion: Suspect Desires: The End of a Religious Illusion in Doubt (2008)?

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pp. 275-302

When I originally conceived this study, I envisaged Dead Man Walking as “the light at the end of the road” for the representational journey that women religious take in postwar popular film. It would have been satisfying to conclude on an uplifting note with a film that means so much to contemporary nuns and that honors their continuing work ...

Works Cited

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pp. 303-326


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pp. 327-338

E-ISBN-13: 9780823251674
Print-ISBN-13: 9780823251650

Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2013

Edition: Cloth

OCLC Number: 843882736
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Veiled Desires

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Subject Headings

  • Nuns in motion pictures.
  • Motion pictures -- Great Britain -- History and criticism.
  • Motion pictures -- United States -- History and criticism.
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