For many of us, our awareness of nuns has been formed through popular entertainment. The image of nuns as wholly pious, unswervingly strict, and perhaps a bit odd has been reinforced by countless movies and TV programs, from The Sound of Music to Sister Act to Dead Man Walking. The reason nuns retain our fascination is simple: they represent something outside secular culture, a fascinating if somewhat baffling reminder of some ancient spiritual asceticism.
But anyone whose understanding of the Brides of Christ is limited by these images of tittering naïfs or solemn exemplars will find their preconceptions sorely tested by this film’s titular Sister Helen Travis. Except for a discrete shawl over her hair, she doesn’t wear a traditional habit (many nuns don’t, these days). She also cusses like a sailor, and isn’t above raising her voice to be heard. She places Frank Sinatra in a position of reverence just below that of the Holy Trinity — her room has as much wall space devoted to Ol’ Blue Eyes as Christ.
Sister Helen didn’t become a nun until she was 56. And her story — the reasons she stepped away from secular life and into spiritual service in the South Bronx — is never entirely revealed in Sister Helen. We do learn that she buried two sons and a husband in the years before. We also learn, from her own testimony, that she was an alcoholic who drank every day. Although the circumstances remain blurry, we know that her husband and one son were murdered. Tellingly, while she has forgiven the criminal who stabbed her son 17 times, she has little pity and no forgiveness for the weakness, in the form of the drug and alcohol addiction, that killed the rest of her family.
It is to those with such addictions that Sister Helen dedicated herself, by establishing a privately funded halfway house for recidivist drug offenders. It’s not, as she repeatedly reminds the viewer, a treatment center. Although most of the residents are undergoing treatment, their responsibilities to Sister Helen are simple: stay sober and pay their rent. Failure to do either of these results in immediate eviction (although it must be noted that many residents have logged more than one stay at Helen’s brownstone).
The world we see in Sister Helen is not particularly a pleasant one; neither is it unnecessarily hopeful. The substance abusers under Helen’s care are almost universally at the end of their ropes, many elderly, all suffering for their addictions. The stereotypical nun would never judge, would not cast blame on the downtrodden: but again, Sister Helen confounds expectations. She judges her tenants based on their actions, on whether or not they have the ability to remain clean and sober. If you want an opportunity to see old men peeing into plastic cups, this is the movie for you, as Helen takes every available opportunity to ensure that her clients are unquestionably clean.
Sister Helen never stoops to easy spiritual bromides: there are hard and intractable problems in every room of this lady’s house. It is to the filmmakers’ credit that these unpleasant subjects are treated with commensurate gravity. Sister Helen may seem like the toughest drill sergeant you’ve never met, but there’s little doubt by the end of the movie that her strict and uncompromising worldview is necessary for the life she lives. We see dozens of substance abusers who have destroyed everything of meaning in their lives, and the only reason most of them are still alive is that Sister Helen gave them one last chance. The filmmakers present us with not only unvarnished but almost unwatchable reality.
There are a few problems with this approach. The DVD contains a handful of extras — deleted scenes and interviews — which give a far more balanced and rounded picture of Helen. Things which are merely implied and left to the viewer’s imagination in the course of the movie, such as Helen’s motivations for becoming a nun and her relationship with her surviving family, are elaborated to good effect. Again, I can understand why the filmmakers chose to illustrate Helen’s career and life in the way they did, but the inclusion of the more sympathetic material could perhaps have leavened an otherwise grim narrative.
Sister Helen was, by the movie’s account, an unpleasant person: hard, focused, and motivated by the kind of purposeful regret that verges on self-loathing. She was able to give up a lifetime of drinking by going cold turkey, and it’s impossible not to feel her palpable frustration as her wards repeatedly falter and fumble. She held herself to the same impossible standards that she held for her tenants, and even given her flinty disposition, it is impossible not to see her as an angel of mercy in the face of oblivion.