Catholicism

Novitiate: An Intimate Portrayal of Cloistered Nuns During Vatican II

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.

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The Blackcoat’s Daughter

A young girl’s isolation at a Catholic boarding school in Upstate New York leads to increasingly disturbing behavior, while a psych-ward escapee drifts closer, in the nail-biting supernatural thriller, The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015). Originally titled February, writer/director Oz Perkins intended this film to be a meditation on loneliness. He crafted a creepy and disturbing tale that has all the elements of a good horror movie.

The film is essentially divided into two stories that progressively come together in a surprise ending. In the first, a freshman girl named Kat (Kiernan Shipka) is staying at her Catholic boarding school over winter break because her parents have failed to pick her up. Rose (Lucy Boynton), a senior, told her parents the wrong date to buy time so she could find out whether she was pregnant. They are watched by two nuns. Rose receives several phone calls from a mysterious voice she calls “Dad,” and her behavior becomes more disturbing with each phone call.

In the second story, a man named Bill (James Remar) picks up a young hitchhiker named Joan (Emma Roberts) over the objections of his wife, Linda (Lauren Holly). It’s implied Joan escaped from a hospital, but Bill believes she reminds him of his daughter, Rose, who was brutally murdered several years earlier. Bill and Linda are traveling to their daughter’s former school to lay flowers. Bill tries to emotionally connect with Joan, believing God brought them together. Joan replies that she doesn’t believe in God.

**Spoilers** At the school, Kat brutally murders Rose and the nuns, decapitates them, and offers them up to Satan in a macabre ritual in the boiler room. A police officer confronts her and fires a shot. Later, in the hospital, a priest exorcises the demon from Kat, and she sees a shadowy figure disappear. In the present, Joan (now revealed to be a grown-up Kat) kills both Bill and Holly, steals their car, and completes her journey back to the boiler room, only to find it unlit and silent.

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Reclaiming the ‘Spirit’ of Halloween

halloweenIs Halloween an evil holiday? Is it secretly pagan? Is Halloween too dangerous for children to celebrate? These are all questions that, sadly enough, many parents ask themselves every year. When I was a kid (way, way back in the 1980s), I can remember trick or treating with my older sister (when I was very young) and then when I was older, with a group of friends. We trick or treated at dusk, or when it was dark, and then afterwards we joined our parents for a Halloween party at a neighbor’s house. Nearly every home was decorated in some way for the holiday.

Years later, when I was in college, I joined my then girlfriend for Halloween at her parent’s house in a small town in central Illinois. I couldn’t believe what I saw. Parents actually drove their kids from house to house and walked them to each door (the few that came). The idea seemed to be “hurry up and get away” from your neighbors as fast as possible. As we drove through town, we saw very few homes decorated for the holiday. Where was the sense of community I had experiences as a child? As I’ve gotten older, particularly in the last several years, Halloween seems to have turned into just another excuse for twenty-somethings to dress in “sexy” costumes and get drunk. What happened to my favorite holiday?

Scott Richert, editor of Chronicles Magazine and the About.com Catholicism expert, has written a series of enlightening articles about Catholicism and Halloween, why Christians should celebrate the holiday, and where a lot of misconceptions about Halloween come from. These articles will be interesting to secular-minded readers as well. I’ll summarize them below, but you can read all three at these links: “Halloween, Jack Chick, and Anti-Catholicism,” “Why the Devil Hates Halloween,” and “Should Catholics Celebrate Halloween?

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