‘Novitiate’ Is an Unforgettable Portrait of Spirituality Under Stress

"You can call Novitiate divinely inspired and mean it."

Melissa Leo in Novitiate. Sony Pictures Classics

I hate movies about priests, nuns, delusional dogma and religious obsession of any kind, but a startling, powerful, keenly nuanced and beautifully made film about young girls struggling to become nuns under anti-diluvian conditions ranks high up there with The Magdalene Sisters and Black Narcissus as an unforgettable portrait of spirituality under stress. Set during that period in the 1960s when the Catholic church decided to relax the rules many people considered archaic and come in from the Dark Ages under a reform process called Vatican II, it chronicles the story of teenage girls who opt to dedicate their lives to God, and of one 17-year-old named Cathleen Harris (wonderfully and magically played by Margaret Qualley) who observes it all like a sacred camera, sharing a unique, life-altering experience for posterity. It’s one of the most powerful and poignant films of 2017.

Cathleen is determined to prove that, contrary to public opinion, nuns are not gnarled old women who could not find husbands or make a success of life in the real world. She did not grow up in a religious home. Her father was a drunken, womanizing philanderer; he mother (another mesmerizing performance by Julianne Nicholson) was a heavy-smoking, foul-mouthed atheist with loose morals. But her education began in Catholic school where love and sacrifice were drummed into her head as a way of life. “All nuns are brides of Christ,” says her favorite teacher. “There’s more to life than God and church and praying,” counters her mother as she sees another half-dressed lover to the door before Cathleen leaves for early morning Mass. With no role models to emulate and longing for something better than what she saw of the world around her, Cathleen ignores her mother’s objections and sacrifices everything to enter a convent, first as a postulant, then after two years a novitiate, then (if she’s still alive) ready to take her vows as a nun. The convent is a test of both faith and strength bordering on heroism, ruled with iron rules and iron rods by a Reverend Mother who sternly announces on the first day that “God is not a fantasy—not a daydream—and not your invisible best friend.” In one of the greatest performances of her colorful career, the tough and fearless Melissa Leo as the unhinged Reverend Mother is both overwhelming and terrifying. She demands regular silence, and after 9 p.m., grand silence, in which no sound is allowed. As Cathleen’s new world of hardship, work and discipline escalates, she makes it clear that even for the devout, life in a nunnery can only be described as boot camp.

(3.5/4 stars)
Directed by: Maggie Betts
Written by: Maggie Betts
Starring: Melissa Leo, Margaret Qualley, Julianne Nicholson and Denis O'Hare
Running time: 123 mins.

The tender screenplay and the nuanced details in the distinguished direction (both by talented Maggie Betts) allow us to witness and evaluate the personalities of all the postulants, answering questions about the secrets, passions, triumphs and failures of girls on the brink of becoming women who are willing to sacrifice their lives to wear the wedding rings of Christ. In scene after scene, we discover what makes a successful nun. One girl even confesses she wanted to become holy, perfect and beautiful like Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story. (She gets weeded out early). Not everyone makes it to final vows. In one particularly unnerving scene, the manipulative Reverend Mother forces her girls to drop to their knees and reveal their flaws and weaknesses in a ritual that goes beyond the usual church confession, then for their penance she cruelly commands them to crawl around in circles like insects. Other scenes are almost too grim to watch. One nun goes totally bonkers, parading through the chapel stark naked and babbling demented ravings while the postulants are assembled for Mass. As the sadistic Reverend Mother you grow to hate, Melissa Leo manages to strip away some of the starchy demeanor beneath the eccentricity and reveal a concealed streak of caring humanity that is not always in the script. Nobody resists the new rules of Vatican II more, and she’s riveting in a scene in which the archbishop (a droll and effective Denis O’Hare) arrives and threatens her to either abandon the old draconian rules for nuns (like self-flagellation) or face ex-communication. Before she can take her vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, even Cathleen begins to question the old ways and surrenders to a lesbian affair with another nun. Confused and terrified by the changes in Catholic reformation dictated by the Pope, some of the women who had resolved to dedicating the rest of their lives on Earth to God became so disillusioned that 90,000 nuns renounced their vows and left their convents. You learn all of this, and more in a film with the kind of tension and dread you find in the best thrillers, but that remains true to the reverence its stoic theme deserves.

You can call Novitiate divinely inspired and mean it.

‘Novitiate’ Is an Unforgettable Portrait of Spirituality Under Stress