Exploring Faith, Feminism and Authority in Novitiate

Young love is a fickle thing. Just ask Cathleen Harris about her cooky crush on our lord and savior, Jesus Christ. In writer/director Margaret Betts’ first feature film, Novitiate, a group of girls grapple with their religious rites as they pursue a lifelong marriage to God. Nuns, as it turns out, took things pretty seriously in the mid-1960s.

But none more seriously than the Sister of the Sacred Rose’s Revered Mother, played by the forceful Melissa Leo. Now, there have been plenty of nasty nuns in cinema before (see The Magdalene Sisters), but Leo portrays a misguided monster, uncertain of how to conduct herself or her cloister in the midst of sudden change.

Set after the controversial Vatican II council – an initiative to modernize the Catholic Church – old school members of the faith were largely left out to dry. Sure, they were no longer allowed to perform certain sacrificial practices, such as self-flagellation, but that wasn’t their biggest gripe. According to the council, nuns were now no closer to God than the average church-goer, and like a spiritual slap in the face, the Reverend Mother’s way of life was all but over.

What this adversity translates to is a masterful performance, one that is sure to receive recognition come award season. In a particularly haunting scene, Leo commands a postulant who has broken grand silence to crawl along the floor as if she were some sort of four-legged creature. Combining estranged sign language (so she doesn’t break silence herself) and gasping bits of breath, you can practically feel her lifeforce fading. She is most certainly a terror, but somewhere beneath her mask of unadulterated anger, we can sympathize somewhat.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the beaten down nun-to-be. As she plods along, heaving her Hail Marys, all she feels is fear. It’s from a pair of knobby knees like these that Novitiate tells its tale. Following along with Cathleen Harris (Margaret Qualley), who from a very early age falls head over heels with God, we watch as she pursues her religious passion full time. Despite her mother’s confusion, Cathleen enters into the convent, where she plans to undergo two years of intense training to become a nun.

Cathleen’s time inside the cloister is an eye-opening depiction of faith, feminism, and authority. Here, she meets a number of other hopefuls, who for one reason or another, have all submitted themselves. As she opens herself up to God, as well as those around her, Cathleen becomes a shadow of her former self: enlightened, maybe, but gaunt and gangly in the process.

As shown by Novitiate, the life of a sister is not a simple one. Besides the painful physical byproducts, Cathleen and her convent are forced to confront issues of unrequited religious romance and the shame of sexuality. On more than one occasion, the imposition is too much, and certain members are thrust out or exit by their own free will.

Sister Mary Grace, played by Dianna Agron, is one such character. Her empathetic attitude and affability make her the most admired authority figure throughout the film. But as she battles with the Reverend Mother’s self-imposed silence regarding the church’s reformation, she begins to question her own faith. Has she made the right choices? Should she really be here? What does God truly mean to her? Upon her revelations, the remaining nuns must reflect also.

Although it may be Betts’ first feature film – having directed the 2010 documentary The Carrier as well as the 2014 short film Engram – she and her team have showcased a tremendous amount of talent. As the group of young girls explore what it means to be pious, we are treated to a sincere depiction of what it means to be at all.

With a markedly modern feel, each scene is strung together by strong acting, crisp cuts, and a solid soundtrack. Making the most of both organ and choir, the music maximizes each moment, stirring us from our seats. And unlike other period pieces, at no point does this film rely too much on set dressing or elaborate costume. Full of fascinating characters and wonderful dialogue, it is two hours worthy of your time.

Make no mistake, despite its name, Novitiate is a seasoned piece of filmmaking.