The Best Nuns in Film and TV, from ‘Sister Act’ and ‘The Sound of Music’ to ‘Mrs. Davis’ and ‘AHS: Asylum’

[Editor’s note: This story was originally published September 2023. It has since been updated ahead of the release of “Immaculate.”]

In the real world, nuns typically lead simple, quiet lives. Taking vows of chastity and obedience in order to fully devote themselves to God, the average nun — be she Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, or some other denomination — gives up her worldly possessions in exchange for the pursuit of greater spiritual purpose, often spending her life in a monastery or convent and focusing on prayer, charity, and schooling. For some, that’s a fulfilling path, but it’s also maybe not the most interesting story to watch.

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And yet onscreen, nuns can be whatever the director wants them to be. They can be the singing, lovable anti-Nazis in “The Sound of Music.” They can be the bawdy and hilarious R&B superstars in “Sister Act.” In some films, like Paul Verhoeven’s “Benedetta,” they spit in the face of those vows of chastity to engage in some sacrilegiously steamy antics. In other films, like “The Conjuring” spinoff film “The Nun,” all that pious energy is a mere front for a sinful heart, as the spiritual sister of that film’s title (a literal demon in disguise) unleashes horrific acts of violence and cruelty on would-be lambs of the Lord-turned-sacrificial slasher fodder.

Although there’s a decent library of films about priests and monks and even popes, there’s something about nuns that makes them particularly rich subjects for filmmakers. Perhaps it’s the iconic habits they wear: an instantly recognizable symbol of faith and goodness that can be deployed sincerely or twisted (and even fetishized) into something more complicated. Or it could be their almost universal association with Roman Catholicism, one of the most melodramatic and intense branches of Christianity — and therefore the one most often depicted on film.

There’s also the obvious gender element. Nuns have a complicated relationship between subservience and independence; in denominations like the Catholic Church, the nun — the only female “leadership” role — is traditionally seen as the bottom of the broader hierarchy. Historically, becoming a nun was sometimes the only option for a woman beyond being a wife and mother, and gave her the opportunity to live away from men. Some of the great films about religion examine the strange space nuns occupy and the sacrifices required by women to pursue their spiritual calling.

With “Immaculate” now in theaters as Sydney Sweeney’s own contribution to the genre, let’s look back on all of the films and TV shows that have given the sisters a chance to shine. The best nun films and shows contain the fizzy comedy of “Sister Act,” the shocking horrors of “The Devils,” and the wild lunacy of “Mrs. Davis.” Have faith that this list will lead you to a great new watch. Entries are listed chronologically.

With editorial contributions from Mark Peikert and Alison Foreman.

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