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After the opening credits, Beatrice Straight as "Mother Christophe" quotes passages from the Bible, Matthew 10:39 and 19:21, in voice-over: "'He that shall lose his life for me shall find it. If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast and give to the poor and come follow me.'" Continuing, she says, "Each sister shall understand that upon entering the convent, she has made the sacrifice of her life to God." Although the Motion Picture Herald review reported that the film ran 154 minutes, New York Times, Variety, Hollywood Reporter and the film's copyright record listed the running time as 149 minutes, the approximate running time of the print viewed.
According to a January 1957 Los Angeles Times article, Kathryn Cavarly Hulme (1900-1981), the author of the novel The Nun's Story, met Marie-Louise Habets, the woman who would later be known in her book as "Sister Luke, Gabrielle Van der Mal" while working with World War II refugees in Europe in 1945. After the war, Hulme sponsored Habet's immigration to the U.S., converted to Catholicism and, after a few years, wrote the former nun's story. Contemporary sources stated that Hulme and Habets, who preferred to be known only by her fictional name, lived together in Los Angeles and later, Hawaii.
According to a September 13, 1956 Hollywood Reporter news item, Eliot Hyman's purchase of the film rights to Hulme's novel for as high as $125,000, depending on the success of the book sales and other conditions, was reported a week after the book was published. According to a notation in an M-G-M story file dated September 1956, the sale of Hulme's book to Hyman was arranged by Ray Stark, who was an agent at that time. A September 10, 1956 Hollywood Reporter news item reported that the property was bought by Fred Zinnemann, who was "reportedly negotiating" to direct the film at Paramount.
A September 29, 1956 Los Angeles Examiner news item reported that Jack Warner purchased the book, which the news item claimed was sought by several studios, for $250,000. According to November 1956 Los Angeles Times and Hollywood Reporter news items, the book, which was selected as a Book of the Month, was acquired from a Canadian firm, P.R.M. Associated Artists Productions through Hyman and Stark. Although the film was not shot until mid-1958, as early as January 1957, according to a Los Angeles Times news item, Warner Bros. was negotiating with Audrey Hepburn to play the lead.
Although their appearance in the film has not been confirmed, contemporary Hollywood Reporter news items added Mitzi Roman and Grazia Marescalchi to the cast, and reported that singer Bob Anthony tested for the role of a priest. The Newsweek review stated that the film contained 108 speaking roles, seventy Italian ballerinas and a Polish princess. According to the Hollywood Reporter review, Cornelius Dumeer, who played "Father Andre," was an actual Congo missionary. (Dumeer's name was erroneously listed as "Diemer" in the CBCS.)
The onscreen credits specify that the interiors were shot at Cinecitt Studios in Rome, Italy. Warner Bros. studio notes found in the file for the film at the AMPAS Library added that the film also was shot on location in Rome, Brussels and other cities in Belgium, as well as the Belgian Congo. According to a March 1958 Hollywood Reporter news item, the film was partially shot on location at Stanleyville in the Belgian Congo. An April 1959 Los Angeles Times article reported that the film was shot at places described in Hulme's book, among them, Rome and the national hospital in the Belgian Congo. The Hollywood Reporter review reported that, "In Africa, the film shows a sequence actually shot among the monstrously malformed inmates of a leper colony." In 1959, a few months after production of The Nun's Story was completed, a violent black-nationalist uprising broke out in the Congo, causing most Europeans to flee. The country became independent from Belgium in 1960 and was later renamed Zare. Stanleyville was renamed Kisangani.
According to a June 1958 Hollywood Reporter news item, due to the AFM musicians' strike that had been ongoing for five months, composer Franz Waxman was sent abroad to work on all phases of preparing the score, from composing to recording. The score contains no music over the end titles, because, as noted by a modern source, Zinnemann did not wish to imply by the mood of the music a judgment about Gabrielle's decision to leave the convent.
A July 1959 Los Angeles Times article reporting on the film's New York opening stated that that The Nun's Story was "farther from Hollywood's beaten track than anything the New York critics can remember. Not alone because the story of a nun's life and inner struggle is rare on the screen, but even more in the way it is told." The New York Times review described the first hour of the film as "in the nature of a documentary picture of how a young woman becomes a nun." The Los Angeles Times article stated, "We come to learn the real meaning and purpose of the vows of chastity, poverty, silence and obedience which are the later guidelines of the nun in her vocation, and out in the world." The New York Times review added, "Through the mouth of a mother superior...[the film] articulates the philosophy and spiritual stress in the formation of a nun-the purposes of the rules of silence, obedience, poverty and chastity, and the point of the most difficult surrender of liberty, memories and will."
About the film's ending, the New York Times review stated, "Mr. Zinnemann has made this off-beat drama describe a parabola of spiritual afflatus and deflation that ends in a strange sort of defeat...a woman gains but also loses her soul, spends and exhausts her devotion to an ideal she finds she cannot hold."
The Nun's Story marked the feature film debut of Colleen Dewhurst. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, but lost to Ben-Hur. Hepburn and Robert Anderson were nominated for Best Actress and Best Screenplay Based on Another Medium, respectively, but lost to Simone Signoret and Neil Paterson for Room at the Top. Other nominations were: Fred Zinnemann (Best Director), Franz Planer (Best Cinematography), Walter Thompson (Best Film Editing), Franz Waxman (Best Musical Score) and George Grove (Best Sound), but all lost to Ben-Hur. The Nun's Story was shown at the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain, where it won the Grand Prix Cine Revue Award. The picture also received a Certificate of Recognition from the National Conference of Christians and Jews, according to contemporary Hollywood Reporter news items. According to a November 1966 Los Angeles Times news item, Hepburn stated that "Sister Luke" was her favorite movie role.