Novitiate tells a story that I knew almost nothing about: how Vatican II changed the role of nuns in Catholicism, and in doing so, caused a mass exodus of nuns from the church. Before watching this film, my understanding of the Second Vatican Council was that it brought an end to priests saying mass in Latin. Anything I knew about becoming a nun I had gleaned from The Sound of Music.
This is all to say that you don’t need to have any knowledge of Catholicism to understand what is at stake for the characters in this film, which focuses on two women living in a secluded convent: one, a young postulant named Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), who has decided to join the sisterhood against her mother’s wishes; the other is the convent’s Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo) whose forty years of service and habits of devotion are called into question by Vatican II. In terms of age, experience, and temperament, these two women are on opposite ends of the spectrum, but they both share a fierce ideal of purity. The Reverend Mother practices a stern, strict version of Catholicism, one that involves acts of mortification and sacrifice. This holds a deep appeal for Cathleen, who after watching her divorced mother deal with pain and heartbreak, is searching for “an ideal love that I can give anything to.”
Both women’s idealism is challenged by the outside world; for Reverend Mother, the challenge comes from Vatican II, a set of reforms that asks nuns to engage more with the public, and with other religions. For Cathleen, the confrontations come from her secular mother, who is bewildered by her daughter’s extreme decision. Cathleen’s mother is played by Julianne Nicholson, an actress who felt so intensely familiar that I was sure I had seen her recently in something else. But when I looked her up, I only knew her from a small indie film, Flannel Pajamas, which I saw over ten years ago, so I think that feeling of intimacy can only be chalked up to her performance—one I thought about for days after.
Cathleen is part of a class of postulants and the film is organized around the process of becoming a nun. There’s a boot camp feeling at the outset, as the large group of young women is told that they will be winnowed down to a much smaller, highly qualified group. Instead of performing physical feats, these young women will have prove themselves spiritually. This is not easy to dramatize, but director Margaret Betts immerses you in the routines and protocol of convent life, so that any breach of conduct hits hard. The biggest moments of drama come during what I’m going to call “Reverend Mother’s Scary Group Therapy,” when she questions the young postulants about their inner lives. Her questions are harsh and harshly worded; in the midst one of these sessions, I heard someone sitting behind me gasp and start to cry.
This film is extremely beautiful—beautiful music, beautiful setting, beautiful stillness, beautiful color palette, and above all, beautiful faces of beautiful girls. Sometimes it felt too beautiful. The young postulants often seemed to be made up in a modern, fashionable way, and that was distracting. I also wondered if the convent interiors would have been quite so tidy and beautifully lit, or if the grounds would have always seemed so bucolic. But that’s just one small quibble, and it may be that if the film had allowed for more realism, it wouldn’t have been as transporting.
This is a debut feature for Betts, and I’ll be watching out for her next film. For a movie that takes place almost entirely inside a convent and is concerned with the ramifications of some very specific religious reforms, Novitiate could have been really boring and esoteric. But Betts turned it into a story of women searching for identity, love, and power within a patriarchal organization—and that’s something a lot of women can relate to and understand.