Nuns have been featured in movies from time to time—The Sound of Music and The Song of Bernadette come immediately to mind—but seldom have the joys and challenges of the religious life been examined with the quiet sincerity shown by Maggie Betts in her debut feature film, Novitiate. In it, Betts tells two parallel stories: That of a young woman coming of age (Cathleen, played by Margaret Qualley, and that of an older woman (the Mother Superior, played by Melissa Leo) responding to changes she feels threaten everything her life has stood for.
Noviate begins in the mid-1950s, as young Cathleen is taken to a Catholic Church by her mother Nora (Julianne Nicholson). Nora is not religious, but like many parents, she feels her daughter should be exposed to religion and allowed to make up her own mind about it. Cathleen, whose home life is disrupted by parental discord, is drawn to the peacefulness of the church. Soon, she is attending a local parochial school, courtesy of a scholarship, and finds herself more and more attracted to the faith.
At age 17, Cathleen enters a convent (home to the fictional Sisters of Blessed Rose) to begin the process of becoming a nun. This involves spending six months as a postulant, followed by 18 months in the novitiate, during which some of those who begin the process will be weeded out (think of it as a boot camp that lasts for two years). Cathleen’s group is led by Sister Mary Grace (Dianna Agron), whose humane approach to teenagers and the religious life brings her into conflict with the strict Reverend Mother. The young women are tested repeatedly during this time, following a strict schedule including long periods of mandatory silence and group sessions led by the Mother Superior during which they are required to name their faults and those of others.
Life in the convent is dominated by rituals and customs that seem eternal and unchanging, but that is about to end, courtesy of the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II). The best-known change following Vatican II is probably the use of the vernacular mass, but several other changes were particularly relevant to nuns, among them that they were no longer expected to live apart from the world or to wear distinctive clothing. Many responded positively to these new freedoms, but for others, like Leo’s Mother Superior, they mean the end of a way of life she values highly. They also feel like a deliberate insult, as if the male Church hierarchy chose the most offensive possible way to say that it places no value whatsoever on her years of service and sacrifice, and has absolutely no interest in considering the experiences of women who choose to live in an all-female community.
Leo gives a remarkable performance as the Mother Superior, who appears alternatively as a religious devotee, the leader of a community, a harsh disciplinarian, and a vulnerable woman. She tells the young women that “You might consider me the voice of God around here,” but that’s only within the convent. Ultimately, men are still in charge, a point driven home through a visit from Archbishop McCarthy (Denis O’Hare), during which he cuts through the pleasantries to inform the Mother Superior that the “suggestions” about how she was to implement the Vatican II reforms were really orders.
Novitiate is quiet and deliberate, allowing you to relax into the measured pace of life in the convent. It is sensitive to the specific demands of living in a self-contained community ruled by customs and practices that could easily make it the object of fun in a less self-assured and respectful filmmaker, and respectful of those who choose a religious life. It’s clear that the young women who intend to become nuns are not trying to escape from the “real world” but have made a conscious choice to follow a specific type of life that they find more satisfying than a conventional existence. Finally, Novitiate is beautifully shot by Kat Westergaard and expertly edited by Susan E. Morse, with the result that it as unfolds as naturally as if we were privileged to observe a condensed version of real life rather than a story constructed for the screen. | Sarah Boslaugh