Note: This documentary aired on PBS on December 20, 2005. If you missed it, you can buy the DVD here.

According to a 2004 survey, the number of nuns in the United States has dropped by 50 percent from the 1960s. Consider that the average age of the nuns today is 70, and you know that religious orders are in demographic crisis.

That decline is at least part of the story in Sisters: Portrait of a Benedictine Community, a documentary premiering on PBS's Independent Lens tonight (check local listings). Director John Hanson ends his film about a slowly vanishing group of nuns in northern Minnesota with a series of contrasts—intercut scenes designed to heighten the tensions between the infirm and dying older nuns and the fewer, younger recruits who are remaking the religious house into something quite different.

It is reminiscent in a way of the powerful closing sequence in The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola's 1972 epic about an Italian-American mob family. Coppola sharpened the tension between the mafia's commitment to family and religion and its violent ways of doing business. Michael Corleone holds his infant nephew as the priest recites the ancient promise to renounce Satan and his ways, while his henchmen murder the heads of competing crime families.

No car bombs explode and no Tommy guns rat-a-tat in Sisters. And indeed, the documentary is no Godfather. But despite the missing mayhem, its climactic juxtaposition is similarly moving. Real-life footage of Sister Boniface's funeral and burial alternates with the vows of a midlife woman entering the convent.

The images of death weigh more heavily than the sight of a newly professed nun's beatific smile. Early in the film, one nun says, "Since I've entered, there's been 80 ...

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Directed By
Fred Zinnemann
Run Time
2 hours 29 minutes
Audrey Hepburn, Peter Finch, Edith Evans
Theatre Release
July 18, 1959
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