Set in the early 1960s and during the era of Vatican II, a young woman in training to become a nun struggles with issues of faith, the changing church, and sexuality.
Back in the 1960s, the Catholic Church held a council called Vatican II, which amended many policies held by the Church. The film “Novitiate” focuses on the reforms affecting nuns. Margaret Qualley plays Cathleen, a girl with a troubled childhood, raised by her single mother Nora Harris (Julianne Nicholson). Upon attending a Catholic school Margaret finds solace in the quiet and reverent life held by the sisters who teach.
At seventeen, Cathleen makes the decision to become a postulate, a beginner nun if you will, much to her agnostic mother’s dismay. Nora wants a normal life for her only child and to keep her daughter in her daily life, not cloistered in a church. While Nora has no faith, Cathleen finds herself drawn to God, Jesus, and the simplistic life free of men and the problems her parents and others deal with. Cathleen does not feel a need to have a man like her father in her life, instead, she chooses the one perfect man, Jesus.
Cathleen becomes a postulate along with a group of other girls determined to marry Jesus and serve him with their lives. To guide them through the six-month journey is Sister Mary Grace (Diana Argon), a beautiful nun dedicated to the Lord but who realizes her carnal nature cannot be ignored. She asks Cathleen, and the other girls off-screen, to take care to make sure this lifelong decision is what they want. Before Mary Grace leaves, she struggles to gain an understanding of the inner-workings of the order under the reign of Mother Superior (Melissa Leo).
Mother Reverend has her own battles to fight, including implementing the new way of life for her strictly run convent. She takes her troubles with the new way out on the many postulates and novitiates who dare to break the grand silence or one of the many rules stricken upon the confined nuns in residence. Her harsh outlook and inability to deviate from time-honored policy lead many of the girls to leave before reaching novice level. Only a handful of girls stay long enough to take their first vows in full wedding garb. Even less stay for their final vows.
Cathleen and the other teenagers in 1964, try to come to terms with their relationship with God and the new life they have chosen. When Cathleen’s budding sexuality shows up in her sleep, she decides to punish herself to the point of illness for breaking her promise to God. When her self-inflicted illness sends Cathleen to the sick room, another novice tends to her needs before finding herself in Cathleen’s arms, in an attempt to fill the deepening void in their faith with intimacy. When Mother Reverend is finally forced to implement the new changes by the Vatican, the convent walls come crashing down around her and those locked inside the walls.
“Novitiate” takes a deep look into the lives and mindsets inside the walls of the convent. Cathleen’s coming-of-age story displays the inconsistencies in the church life and those stuck behind black and white veils. Many people have a hard time understanding the mindset that would lead a young girl to give her life to Christ and live in seclusion from the rest of the world. This film will help to understand not just how a girl could desire a life in the church, but the events that lead to that decision.
While Cathleen is the focus, writer and director Margaret Betts shift around to several points of view to allow the audience the whole picture of life for nuns before the changes of Vatican II are implemented. Margaret Betts, along with the entire cast, does a stellar job with this movie. I cannot imagine anything improving this dramatic story. The story plays out almost like a documentary because this tale is not for the weak of heart. Although, there is a lot of beauty to be found in the simplicity of life and friendship even in such a harsh environment.
The moments where Cathleen is on screen alone so perfectly captures the intimate moments in a solitude life. When she punishes herself with ‘the discipline,’ a knotted rope for whipping, I wanted to cry over her agony. Other scenes broke my heart as well. Scenes where she tortures herself by starvation, or when she finally loses control and seeks solace through physical touch, all these moments culminate into a beautiful understanding of the psyche on a deeper level. Even the peripheral characters were spot on. I would highly recommend this movie to anyone seeking to understand the Catholic lifestyle of sisters behind the walls of a monastery.
In theaters Friday, November 10th