Set in the wake of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council (more commonly referred to as Vatican II), the debut feature from writer-director Maggie Betts, Novitiate is a powerful look at the small training convent called The Sisters of Blessed Rose at a time when the church decided to enter the modern world with what some deemed wild abandon.
Just for context, Vatican II was a gathering in the early 1960s (the first of its kind in almost 100 years) called for by Pope John XXIII, and one of its many resulting declarations was that nuns were of no more stature in the church than any other practicing Catholic. This resulted in nuns leaving convents in droves, especially younger ones. But Vatican II also freed nuns of their cloistered lives, allowing them to go do good deeds in the community. Still, for many, the idea of going through the regimen that leads to being formally married to Jesus held a certain importance that was no longer looked upon by the Vatican as anything special.
Novitiate, named after the period that a would-be nun undergoes prior to taking vows to determine whether she is truly ready for an isolated religious life, begins in the late 1950s and follows the path of several young women coming to the convent for different reasons. Some are there to put a troubled past behind them; others have led good, Christian lives and wish to extend that in the most substantial way possible. The story is primarily told through the eyes of Cathleen (Margaret Qualley of The Nice Guys and “The Leftovers”), who makes the decision at a young age to attend church and eventually become a nun despite objections from her less-than-religious mother (Julianne Nicholson), who assumes this is a phase.
The film tells multiple stories of Cathleen and her fellow nuns in training over the period of several years of devoted instruction, severe punishment, and a type of thought control that only threats wielded by an old-school Reverend Mother (a relentless Melissa Leo) can bring. Some of the young women drop out—due to lack of faith, an unwillingness to give up the rest of their lives, or being a little too curious about a man’s (or woman’s) touch—while others are pushed out for some of the same reasons. There’s an interesting subplot about Sister Mary Grace (Dianna Agron), who transfers to the convent because it has a reputation of being more strict, but as we learn more about her, it becomes clear that the temptations around her are so great that she feels a harsher environment is the only way to stay devout.
Novitiate is filled with wonderful young actresses who are given the chance to create complex and complicated characters, with unique issues and personalities. The real drama in the story comes when the Vatican II decisions are handed down, some of which deal with easing corporal punishments in convents, which the Reverend Mother conveniently forgets to tell her young charges about. It’s not until the Archbishop (Denis O’Hare) shows up to lay down the (new) law that the Reverend Mother tells the young nuns just what the Church thinks of them, and nothing is the same after that.
Beautifully shot by cinematographer Kat Westergaard, the movie is a different brand of coming-of-age story, but there’s no denying that’s exactly what it is. Each girl has her own unique set of flaws and must cope, overcome, or be defeated by them. Filmmaker Betts has a true empathy for her characters (even the Reverend Mother, who is one of the last of a dying breed, for better and worse), and it’s that level of compassion that makes Novitiate both unique and worthy.
The film works as an examination of a lifestyle that simply doesn’t exist in the mainstream any longer, as well as both a criticism and tribute to that bygone world. Betts’s lack of judgement of certain characters might trouble some, but it also keeps the film pure from a storytelling perspective—it lays out the events and allows the viewer to assess the spiritual guidance being given or the hurt being done. The work moves at its own deliberate pace, but when it reaches its finale, something quite moving occurs within the characters and audience.
The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.