The Runner Stumbles is the screen adaptation of Milan Stitt's 1976 play about the trial of a priest accused of murdering a nun from his parish in a small mining town. Although essentially a whodunit, this provocative drama is also a story about crime and punishment, sin and guilt. On a deeper level, it is an exploration of the rigorous exigencies of a religious calling and an oblique critique of the legalism of the institutional church.
Father Rivard's ministry consists of the maintenance of a church and school in a rural Washington area. The time is 1927. His life and work are upended when Sister Rita, a young nun arrives to help run the school. While he regards his assignment to the remote area as banishment for his radical views, she sees her new location as an opportunity rich with potential. Her annouchement "I am a person who is a nun, not a nun who used to be a person" signals that there is something special about her. Sister Rita's enthusiasm soon brings the parish school alive. Her idealism is a direct contrast to Father Rivard's depressed feeling about his ministry.
When it is discovered that the two other nuns living at the convent have consumption, Sister Rita furtively moves into the rectory to avoid contamination. Father Rivard's housekeeper Mrs. Shandig is appalled by this breach in propriety. She is also jealous of the obvious rapport between the priest and the young nun. The townsfolk begin to gossip when the two are seen taking walks together.
Pressed by public opinion and tormented by his own pangs of guilt, Father Rivard suggests to Sister Rita that they cut off their dialogue and not talk to each other except by appointment. The difference in their attitudes is further demonstrated when they have conflicting advise for a lonely woman who has just lost her father. A fire in the convent, however, sets the stage for a final confrontation. In a moment of truth they face up to the depth of feeling they share and confess their love.
Stanley Kramer has brought The Runner Stumbles (the title refers to Isaiah 40:31) to the screen with its dramatic vitality intact. Dick Van Dyke skillfully presents Father Rivard's alternating stiffness and humanity and the guilt which drags him down. Kathleen Quinlan's performance as Sister Rita outshines her strong showing in I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. Maureen Stapleton's portrait of Mrs. Shandig, a convert to Catholicism whose sense of right and wrong burns bright inside her, is vividly enacted. And Ray Bolger's measured Monsignor Nicholson is a perfect embodiment of inflexible institutional legalism.
The question which The Runner Stumbles brings to the forefront are important ones. Viewers of the film will be forced to exercise their values in regard to the conflict between duty and love, institutional obligation and personal needs. And following Pope John Paul II's recent American journey in which he addressed the issues of priestly celibacy, the maintenance of traditional church views on sexuality, and the meaning of a religious calling this poignant film could not be more though-provoking or more timely.