Veiled Desires: Intimate Portrayals of Nuns in Postwar Anglo-American Film

Veiled Desires: Intimate Portrayals of Nuns in Postwar Anglo-American Film

Veiled Desires: Intimate Portrayals of Nuns in Postwar Anglo-American Film

Veiled Desires: Intimate Portrayals of Nuns in Postwar Anglo-American Film


A provocative, interdisciplinary study of nuns on the big screen, from The Bells of St. Mary's (1945) to Doubt (2008), that shines fresh light on the cinematic nun as a woman and a religious in the twentieth century.

Ingrid Bergman's engaging screen performance as Sister Mary Benedict in The Bells of St. Mary's made the film nun a 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 and naive? Why have she and her cinematic sisters in postwar popular film so often been stereotyped or selectively analyzed, so seldom been seen as women and religious?

In Veiled Desires--a unique full-length, in-depth study of nuns in film--Maureen Sabine explores these questions in a groundbreaking interdisciplinary study covering more than sixty years of cinema. She looks at an impressive breadth of films in which the nun features as an ardent lead character, including The Bells of St. Mary's (1945), Black Narcissus (1947), Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957), Sea Wife (1957), The Nun's Story (1959), The Sound of Music (1965), Change of Habit (1969), In This House of Brede (1975), Agnes of God (1985), Dead Man Walking (1995), and Doubt (2008).

Veiled Desires considers how the beautiful and charismatic stars who play chaste nuns, from Ingrid Bergman and Audrey Hepburn to Susan Sarandon and Meryl Streep, call attention to desires that the veil concealed and the habit was thought to stifle. In a theologically and psychoanalytically informed argument, Sabine responds to the critics who have pigeonholed the film nun as the obedient daughter and religious handmaiden of a patriarchal church, and the respectful audience who revered her as an icon of spiritual perfection. She provides a framework for a more complex and holistic picture of nuns on screen by showing how the films dramatize these women's Christian call to serve, sacrifice, and dedicate themselves to God, and their erotic desire for intimacy, agency, achievement, and fulfillment.


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. Whether these stereotypes trivialize, sentimentalize, or sanctify her, represent her seriously or sensationally, the result is the same. She has seldom been seen as a totality of mind-body-heart-spirit, rarely been the subject of comprehensive inter-disciplinary analysis, and never been the subject of full-length study. Instead, the screen nun has often become the occasion to talk about something else, something of more interest to the critical viewer than the desires that call her as a woman to the religious life. This book will turn the focus of discussion back on the cinematic nun as a woman and a religious in the twentieth century, one striving for a life that integrates personal and professed, worldly and sacred, traditional and modern, gender and spiritual aspirations. It will sug-

I am indebted to Adrian Stokes’s extended essay Reflections on the Nude (London: Tavistock, 1967), 3–64, for his psychoanalytic discussion of the wholeness that may be found through contemplation of female figures in the visual arts who embody completeness, fulfillment, and plenitude.

See, for example, Judith Wynn’s assertion that “movies about nuns fall into one of two categories: the ridiculous and the sublime” in “The Sappy and Sublime” Sojourner 5.6 (1980): 21; Rebecca Sullivan’s suggestion at the close of Visual Habits: Nuns, Feminism, and American Postwar Popular Culture (University of Toronto Press, 2005), 220, that nice, naughty, and nasty nuns became the prevailing film stereotypes in the late sixties and seventies; and Mary Ann Janosik’s classification of women religious in Hollywood film as “the Earth Mother Madonna, the Eccentric Aunt, and the Social Activist Sister” in “Madonnas in our Midst: Representations of Women Religious in Hollywood Film,” U.S. Catholic Historian 15.3 (1997): 81. Anthony Burke Smith has recently described how “American nuns bore the brunt of stereotyping” in the popular, postwar, photojournalist magazine Life. See The Look of Catholics: Portrayals in Popular Culture from the Great Depression to the Cold War (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010), 121–2.

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