MovieChat Forums > La religieuse (1971) Discussion > Is the film mocking faith?

Is the film mocking faith?

Is the film mocking the essentials of religious faith, or only perceived failings of its institutions and practitioners? Does Suzanne's naivety suggest that it is only the immature who cling to simple belief? How many of those in authority she encounters are sincere? Isn't the film right to criticise their widespread neglect of duty and abuse of power?


I don't believe the film is mocking faith itself, rather the institution of religion and specifically the Catholic Church. Of course, Rivette gives his little disclaimer at the beginning of the film, which pretty much tells us, "Despite how it will appear, this is not a work of simple anti-Catholic propaganda." No doubt, the film goes deeper than that, but it's also inevitable that it will be seen in that light, and it's more than obvious that we are dealing with a relentless pummeling of the Catholic Church, a film that highlights its apparent hypocrisy, cruelty, and even moral decadence. Nevertheless, while this film may have been critical of the Catholic Church in such a way as we might expect from Luis Buñuel or even Federico Fellini at times (I recall, specifically, the ecclesiastical fashion show that served as the finale in "Fellini's Roma"), I never saw anything that even resembled a Bergman-esque assault on God himself, or the concept of God. In fact, this was not a theological film at all. It never asks the big questions about spirituality, faith, or God that we might expect from Andrei Tarkovsky, for instance. It's not a film about God or faith, in my opinion, but rather a film about religion, specifically. And the distinction is as important as ever here. If there is any criticism of faith itself in the film, it is only how easily it is corrupted within the institutional framework. God himself is never brought under attack, or even under scrutiny, although this is debatable to some extent, and subject to personal interpretation, like everything else. Obviously, the film will warrant the most comparisons to the work of Robert Bresson. "Angels of Sin" especially, for the convent setting, but also "Diary of a Country Priest", and really Bresson's style in general -- his austere, ascetic minimalism, which presents us with a completely unique vision of spirituality. It's present here, in Rivette's film, although by no means identical to Bresson's style. Also, thematically, I'm not sure this film shares a great deal of similarities with Bresson's work, which is more about spirituality in the human sense, not in the religious sense, even when the plot of his films revolves around convent or parish life. Bresson's films are not truly about God at all. They are about man -- his pride, his arrogance, his self-sacrifice in a desperate assertion of individual freedom, and ultimately, his destruction in a world where such freedom is impossible. In this way, we can definitely see similarities to "The Nun", which is also about the destruction of a soul in a world where freedom does not and can not exist. But in Rivette's film, these themes are reduced to a more rudimentary excoriation of religious institutions like the Catholic Church. In Bresson's work, the criticism is not really of religion at all, but of man's arrogance, his presumptuousness, a spirituality corrupted by that most primal of all human flaws: pride. Bresson's films are much more complex. They are not simply about, as was "The Nun", an unmitigatedly pure, innocent soul who is destroyed by the corruption of an oppressive institution. This would be much too simple for Bresson. Generally, we can't write off his themes so easily, although his '60s work (i.e. "The Trial of Joan of Arc", "Au hasard Balthazar", and especially "Mouchette") could certainly be argued to share this premise. Overall, though, there's a moral certainty present in Rivette's film's condemnation of religious institutions that we don't see in Bresson, and so "The Nun", without question, does possess, at least to some degree, that element of anti-religious propaganda that Rivette evidently wished to avoid. Our protagonist is so completely devoid of sin or wrongdoing, so totally beyond any fault or blame, that we can't help but want to point the finger at someone for her suffering and eventual demise -- and Rivette (or, perhaps more accurately, Diderot) leaves us absolutely no doubt as to where he wants us to point that finger. Bresson, on the other hand, doesn't allow us to draw such morally simplistic and clearly delineated conclusions. We're often left at the end of a Bresson film wondering who's to blame, or if we can really blame anyone at all. Human nature plays a larger part in Bresson's work than in "The Nun", in which we are indicted for our actions, not our nature. "The Nun" is not about the nature of human beings nearly as much as it is about the nature of an institution. This is unavoidably going to diminish the complexity and profundity of the work, since institutions are merely creations of man -- that is to say, reflections of man -- and exploring something as intricate as religion in this fashion is analogous to trying to discern an individual's complexion by examining his shadow. A more meaningful analysis of these issues will result from a work that goes straight to the source. That's what we see in Bresson, who, like Tarkovsky or Bergman, calls us to trial for our nature, not for our actions. For this reason, I don't think "The Nun" is as masterful of a work as many of the films by these other artists. Nor is it as personal. It ultimately boils down to historical fiction, and I would imagine that Diderot, were he alive today and able to bear witness to the current state of society and religion, might wonder why Rivette was bothering to adapt his novel at all. Where's the relevance? Granted, some of the issues raised in Rivette's "The Nun" are timeless, but for the most part, the problems that drove Diderot to write the novel are all but absent by 1966, or have evolved and mutated to such an extent as to be unrecognizable. Convent life no longer exists in the way Diderot portrayed it. The Catholic Church no longer has enough power over human society to be oppressive even if it wanted to (certainly not on the level we see in Rivette's film), and religion in general has far less sway over man's spirit than it once did, considering this age of technological advancement and scientific knowledge in which we live. And so "The Nun" comes dangerously close to being a work of historical curiosity, although ultimately I think it transcends those limitations through its intelligence, its impeccable execution, and its fidelity to its subject matter -- Rivette shows the most genuine dedication to his material, however dated. And so, with that being said, I should mention that I'm being more critical of the film than I want to be. I really was very impressed. It's a very good, if not a great film, and if I make comparisons to Bresson or Bergman or Tarkovsky, et cetera, it's only a testament to the film's quality that it is worthy of such comparisons. Anna Karina shows a versatility that I never knew she possessed. The role couldn't have been played better. And Rivette -- what can you say? His second feature film, and he's already adapting complex and controversial classic novels better than many filmmakers do after a lifetime of working in the medium of cinema. I had to watch "The Nun" on a Kino VHS, which was disappointing, and although it wasn't nearly as painful for me as I expected, someone needs to tend to this film, badly. It deserves the attention.


By sheer coincidence I happened to look up a review tonight and saw your interesting post.

How much of what we see is Diderot and how much Rivette I'm not now sure, having read the novel so long ago that I've forgotten it. What I would question, however, is a couple of your claims.

First, that “The Catholic Church no longer has enough power over human society to be oppressive even if it wanted to (certainly not on the level we see in Rivette's film)”. But what, to pick just one example, about the recent widespread uncovering of abuse of minors and vulnerable adults by Catholic priests and nuns in every continent? Doesn't that vividly echo specific criticisms by Diderot over 200 years ago?

Secondly, that “religion in general has far less sway over man's spirit than it once did, considering this age of technological advancement and scientific knowledge in which we live.” Perhaps you would like to rephrase that statement in the light of news reports of mass murders by religious extremists, for example Boko Haram in Nigeria, that have been happening in this century in all continents? Didn't the more acute of the old 18th century philosophes know exactly what they were up against?