Stories about nuns living in convents often make great character-driven dramas. by nature, they easily feature a large female cast and seem to provide rich opportunities to explore a wide range of women’s experiences; Films like Ida and the Innocents use their settings to look at not only doubt and belief, but also desire, pain, tragedy, anxiety, and physicality. nuns dress and live in a community of uniformity, but each nun is an individual with her own emotions, personality, and experiences, which can be even more interesting to explore in the confined context of a convent.
novitiate is a film about nuns in a strict order who must come to terms with the implications of vatican ii, the reforms enacted by the roman catholic church in the 1960s that were intended to adjust church practices to a rapidly modernizing world. it is a period piece that is almost reverential, while presenting criticism of both convent life and the reforms that greatly reduced the number of women who felt compelled to live it. but it is also about a woman who is determined to channel all her desires to serve god, and discovers that it is not an easy task.
the novitiate focuses on a young woman in love with god
Set in 1964, the film primarily follows Cathleen (Margaret Qualley of Leftovers), who is raised by a non-religious single mother (Julianne Nicholson), but ends up in a Catholic school and eventually decides to enter the convent. other young women enter as well, and the novitiate follows them through their time as renewed postulants hoping to join the order, then as more serious novices, especially as they wrestle with their personal fears and desires, including illicit ones. p>
The highly restrictive nature of the order suits Cathleen, who craves structure and a sense of belonging to god, with concrete rules on how to approach him. she is in love with god, with the rush of a lovesick teenager, and with a lifetime of religious service.
but he has a propensity to control his desires by submitting himself to extreme humiliation and denial, and as he begins to emerge in disturbing ways (including starving himself and self-inflicting corporal punishment), the harshness of life within the convent walls becomes dangerous, particularly when her passions begin to shift from god to fellow novice.
Presiding over the convent is the severe Reverend Mother Superior (Melissa Leo), whose anger at the way the church’s women are being left out of the reformation decisions — many of which are threatening to change convent life — translates into a helpless frustration that spills onto everyone around her.
Novitiate is inspired by an ancient idea, that of religious life as ecstatic, but it is not a devotional film. instead, it is a humanist, with a complicated and not entirely complementary perspective on convent life. As such, it has drawn criticism, albeit notoriously unfair, from the Catholic League. and her blunt depictions of sex make her unlikely to please the faithful.
A better way to understand the novitiate is to think of the film’s mission as one that aims to blur the lines between spiritual and physical ecstasy (whether through bodily mortification or intense pleasure) in ways Sometimes suggested by Catholic mystics, who have occasionally spoken of their desire for God in erotic terms. but the film also combines a modern understanding of sexuality, spirituality, individuality, and vocation. and that feels, at least in part, like a solid reflection of the historic reforms of the entire church at its core.
the most interesting element of the film is its perspective on the reforms of the vatican ii
Novitiate’s modern filter results in the film feeling clunky at times, but it’s a promising debut from writer-director Maggie Betts who won best director at Sundance in January. And it’s more interesting for how she portrays both Catholicism and the psychological effects of the Vatican II reforms on women who had dedicated themselves to the church.
The mid-century series of reforms effectively caused many crises of faith in women serving in the church, causing many to leave convents around the world, according to the novitiate epilogue. and the film emphasizes the problem that women serving the church at the time did not participate in the second Vatican council that enacted the reforms.
one change instituted by vatican ii was to proclaim that nuns were equal to other faithful catholics, not more special to god. and this was devastating, especially for women who had dedicated their lives to their vocation, only to feel that the church was saying that their efforts didn’t mean much.
The sisters experience the deliberation over and creation of the reforms (and especially the changes those reforms brought to their lives) not just as a slight, but as an injustice. But as we witness the journey of some of the novices and nuns who leave, we also get a deeper understanding of why women join religious orders in the first place, and what ultimately motivates them to stay or go.
Novitiate captures something that many religious people can understand: the belief, however mistaken, that beating oneself (both figuratively and sometimes literally) as an act of devotion will make God love us more of what other people love.
This is a tricky business, and I suspect one has to be a Catholic to feel the full weight of the film. But while Novitiate is shaky in places, it’s genuinely moving, bolstered by performances from Qualley and Nicholson in particular, as well as a host of talented supporting actresses. and ends up not answering all the questions, which is, given the eternal uncertainty that accompanies a life of devotion, exactly the right choice.
Novitiate opens in theaters on October 26.