Novitiate is, very importantly, set during the final days of the Vatican II council. The Council itself doesn’t figure into Novitiate’s events, the reforms instituted by that assembly hover over Novitiate’s narrative like a omen. Is it a fell omen or a fair one? I suppose that depends on your point of view.
Novitiate’s story follows a group of young women in the process of becoming nuns in a strict, cloistered convent. We are with them as they enact and voice their hopes and fears about being nuns, and we are with them as they thrill at the proposition of being “married to Christ,” and finding true love in and with God. There is a precision to this film that is not unlike the rigors of the young girls’ training. Novitiate is suffocating at times but also intimate, revealing and yet curiously removed. The nuns in the film might describe God the same way.
The film’s principal protagonist is a young woman named Cathleen (Margaret Qualley, doe-like). She was raised in an explicitly irreligious household by her single mother, and she came to want to be a nun after encountering the devotion of her nun teachers at the Catholic school that offered her a free education. She is both the most devoted of her peers and the one who is most clearly searching for something firm in life. Her home-life, pointedly, leaves much to be desired. Her father is absent; her mother is promiscuous – two parental qualities she’ll later come to find in her newfound faith’s masculine and feminine figures as well.
The abbey the nuns are potentially joining—if they can make it through the two year trial(s)—is a picture of pre-Vatican II severity. It’s almost as if Novitiate was made to realize the kind of religious culture Vatican II sought to correct. That culture is most vibrantly exercised by the convent’s Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo, electric as a fence). She introduces herself by claiming to be the “voice of God,” and she dominates her sisters with all the brashness you might expect from someone who equates herself with a Divine Being.
Ultimately, Novitiate doesn’t have much positive to say about religious devotion. It doesn’t even see how a faith like Reverend Mother’s—she is a woman caught between her lifelong commitment, now challenged by reform, and the felt absence of God—is a real faith. Faithfulness in the absence of emotional confirmation, a faith rooted in the tradition and practices of the Church, is a legitimate kind of faith. (Perhaps the Vatican II reforms are responsible for her waverings, since they are scuttling the traditions of the church, though the film doesn’t really explore this.) It’s the kind of faith Mother Theresa, for example, practiced throughout a large portion of her life. It’s the kind of faith C.S. Lewis commends in The Screwtape Letters when he praises the kind of faith that pleases God simply in our willingness to stand even when we cannot.
On the other hand, as the film celebrates the liberties available to devout Catholic women following Vatican II, so it must condemn the sacrifices imposed on them by Catholicism prior to those reforms. And truly, the abuses prescribed by the convent’s practice as penance are not necessary. There is no grace in their faith, and—maybe this is my Protestantism talking—but in Christ we find grace upon grace upon grace. I think my Catholic sisters and brothers would agree.
This review was originally published during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival on January 20, 2017. – editor