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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 naïve? 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 look at 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. Sabine provides a framework for a more complex and holistic picture of nuns onscreen 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.
“The ‘nun film’ was a significant genre in Anglo-American cinema through most of the second half of the twentieth century. Maureen Sabine’s is the most impressive treatment to date of a genre that has been sadly neglected in the literature of film studies. Ranging from serious art films such as Black Narcissus to the popular entertainment of The Sound of Music, Sabine combines Freudian psychology and Christian theology to offer a sensitive reading of films whose protagonists invariably struggle to fashion distinct personal identities while remaining faithful to received traditions.”—Christopher S. Shannon, Christendom College
“Veiled Desires is a provocative, fascinating, and occasionally lyrical study of the narratives and imagery of Catholic women religious on the big screen. The book is impressively ambitious in scope, bringing together social theory, psychoanalysis, Catholic history, and media studies to interpret forty years of film.”—Amy L. Koehlinger, Florida State University
"Not every reader will find the Freudian analysis helpful and compelling. Nonetheless, Veiled Desires, which seeks to '[challenge] the view that Freud and his psychoanalytic disciples have nothing to tell us about faith' (301), has much to teach specialists (and especially graduate students) in Catholic Studies."—Debra Campbell, American Catholic Studies
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