The Good, The Bad, and The Nuns

As someone who has a keen interest in the portrayal of clerical characters on screen, it has been intriguing to note the gradual rise of nuns onto both the small and big screens in recent times. My most recent trip to the cinema got me thinking about this.

It wasn’t something I was expecting from The Lady in the Van (2016), but Maggie Smith’s Miss Shepherd was certainly profoundly affected by her relationship with the nuns of Camden. Sadly, their effect on her was profoundly negative, repressing her love for music and piano-playing in favour of silence and quiet prayer. It leads to a scene towards the end of the film that left me utterly frustrated and rather angry that something so beautiful could be condemned in such a way that, as she begins to play again for the first time in decades, she cannot bring herself to finish the piece. There is a self-loathing that stops her from continuing.

Another British film that shows nuns in a bad light is Philomena (2013). Here, the nuns of Roscrea allow a young inmate at their convent, Philomena Lee, to be parted from her baby boy without her knowledge or permission. It appears to be a harsh regime that separates mother and child, only for them to see each other for short periods of time. This separation allows the nuns opportunity to welcome prospective adoptive parents to the convent to choose a child for themselves. The harrowing scene when Philomena realises it is her little boy, Anthony, who is being taken away reveals the harsh and brutal regime of the convent. It is hard not to be overwhelmed with a sense of injustice; to see this as the responsibility of nuns makes it unfathomable.

I went to watch The Lady in the Van with a couple of others, and one of their comments struck me in particular: “It does make you want to writhe against the church”. It is interesting how these depictions shape our thinking and understanding of not only Christianity but also of God. Particularly with Miss Shepherd, her sometimes-unforgiving attitude and overly-fervent prayer life suggest that she sees God as a critical and demanding person. Despite the image at the end of this film which sees Miss Shepherd ascend into the arms of God, it is not this positive image that remains with you as you leave the cinema. From my point of view, Philomena fairs slightly better in comparison. Philomena’s forgiveness towards Sister Hildegarde serves as a powerful expression of God’s gracious love. Sadly, the nun’s lack of repentance is anything but favourable.

Where I have found a positive image of nuns, however, is in the BBC’s highest-rated drama series of this millennium: Call the Midwife. It is amazing to think that the most popular series on television since 2001 has been a programme centred around a convent in 1950s London. Yet the British public have taken this adaptation of Jennifer Worth’s memoirs to their hearts. Alison Graham serves up a brilliant argument for why it’s one of the best shows on TV much better than I can in her weekly Radio Times column. For me, the fact that a bunch of nuns play such a central role in this ensemble drama is testament to the increasing representations of clerical characters on television. From Rev. to Grantchester, British TV seems to be experiencing a renewed interest in the lives of those whose vocation is serving God. In Call the Midwife‘s case, it is a promising portrayal of nuns who seek to serve their community, love each person they come across, and keep their faith even in the toughest of times (Sister Mary Cynthia’s ordeal in episode six of series five is a great example of this latter observation).

Much like the The Lady in the Van and Philomena, the depiction of nuns in Call the Midwife can help shape our understanding of both the Church and God. It is great to find such beautiful acts of love in this latter show. It is sad to think that such emotional brutality in the two films is based on real people and real experiences.

Ultimately, I think these opposing representations feed into a wider, overall analysis of clerical characters on screen, namely that they are presented as imperfect human beings just like the rest of us. They may have faith, but they also have weaknesses and experience failure and success just as much as the rest of humanity. If this is true, I wonder how much these empathetic portrayals are contributing to the rise of the on screen cleric..?

(Originally published on March 24 2016)

Featured Image (C) BBC
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