A young woman feels called to become a Catholic nun during the tumultuous period of Vatican II in Novitiate (2017). Written and directed by Margaret Betts, Novitiate is an intimate portrayal of the personal struggle and sacrifices these women made to pursue a religious calling, while others felt abandoned by the institution that gave their lives meaning. This was Margaret Betts’ first feature film, and is a genuine and heartfelt effort with outstanding performances by its cast.
The film opens in 1954. Though non-religious, Nora Harris (Julianne Nicholson) takes her young daughter Cathleen to church. Her marriage is falling apart and her abusive husband leaves. Later, religious sisters visit their home and offer Cathleen a scholarship to attend a newly-opened Catholic school, where she feels the presence of God. At 17, Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) believes she has been called to become a nun and enters a convent as a postulant, over her mother’s objections.
At the Order of the Sisters of Blessed Rose, Cathleen befriends her fellow postulants, Sissy (Maddie Hasson), Emily (Liana Liberato), Evelyn (Morgan Saylor), and others, and meets Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo), a stern headmistress. As the girls progress towards becoming novitiates, Reverend Mother becomes alarmed with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. She believes the changes will destroy their way of life, and tries to resist them despite warnings from Archbishop McCarthy (Denis O’Hare).
Things get complicated when Cathleen feels an awakening sexuality, to which she responds by starving herself. This drives her into the arms of a newcomer, Sister Emanuel (Rebecca Dayan). Also starved for physical affection, the two share a forbidden moment of tenderness. Meanwhile, Reverend Mother grows despondent as she is powerless to stop Vatican II from liberalizing their religious order, undermining her authority and resulting in a mass exodus of nuns.
Writer/director Margaret Betts, who is not Catholic, betrays her lack of familiarity with Catholicism when it comes to a few details most audiences probably won’t notice. Betts grew up in privilege as the daughter of a wealthy developer who was also close friends with former President George W. Bush. She described her early years as unfocused and self-absorbed, until Laura Bush advised her to spend more time volunteering. As a wealthy socialite, I can see how she would take a dim view of the self-sacrifice and self-denial nuns are called to embrace. However, Novitiate is tender and at times unexpectedly sympathetic.
Melissa Leo was nominated for several awards for her portrayal of Reverend Mother. Although she’s generally considered a Nurse Ratched-like character, I ended up feeling sympathy for her. As head of the convent, she commands unquestioning obedience from the other nuns, yet she’s powerless to stop the reforms because the Church commands unquestioning obedience over her. The scene in which she reads a letter outlining changes from the diocese like a death sentence is heart-wrenching. Mike D’Angelo at AVClub was right when he argued Reverend Mother should have been the protagonist of this film.
Margaret Qualley, a model and trained ballet dancer, also appeared in one of the best films of 2016: The Nice Guys. She plays a completely different role in Novitiate. There are plenty of actors and actresses (Kristen Stewart comes to mind), who is basically the same person in every film. You know what you’re getting when you see their name on the marquee. I’m most impressed when I see an actor or actress and don’t even recognize them because they disappear so completely into their role. Margaret Qualley is such an actress. I’m looking forward to seeing what she does in the future.
Novitiate isn’t without problems. Sister Cathleen Harris wasn’t born Catholic and we never see her baptized or confirmed. It’s briefly brought up when she initially enters the convent as a postulant but then never mentioned again. It’s not possible to become a Catholic nun without being a member of the Catholic Church, but even if they made an exception, shouldn’t her lack of religious background play some role in her experience at the convent? Wouldn’t the others doubt her sincerity, or treat her as an outsider? That would set up personal conflicts that add drama to the film. Instead, it’s just a glaring plot hole.
Overall, Novitiate is an emotional roller coaster and a solid film if you don’t know much about Catholicism. Accurate and non-stereotypical portrayals of Catholics and Catholicism are almost unheard of in American film, so Novitiate is notable for its tender and sympathetic portrayal. It’s more about the girls’ relationship with God and each other, and the limits of pursuing an ideal, than anything else.