Novitiate

The early 60’s were a time of change everywhere in our society. Almost no aspect of our culture was left untouched and to a certain extent untraumatized, at least for the ones resisting the changes. Nowhere was this more true than in the Catholic Church. Vatican II had just issued several important reforms to try and make the church more open to prospective worshippers and there were a lot of unhappy people who felt that the essence of their faith had been betrayed. Others of course, welcomed the changes.

Novitiate follows a group of prospective nuns through their training, which is made an ordeal by Reverend Mother Marie St. Clair, played by Melissa Leo. She is a battle ax of the old school who is determined to train her charges the old way. Her program is more like basic training than a theological course of study. She makes no secret of the fact that she wants to wash many of them out before they take the habit. To her becoming a nun is literally marrying Christ and the relationship with Him requires the sacrifice of everything one has. The Reverend Mother has not left the confines of the convent in forty years. In return these women get special status, recognition of their special relationship with God.

The girls, for their part, are struggling, not only with their leader, but with own desires and urges. They say they are ready to forsake physical relationships but are they? The main focus of the movie is Sister Cathleen, played by Margaret Qualley. Her single mother raised her alone and doesn’t believe in God anymore so her daughter’s decision is particularly galling. But Cathleen’s decision is a sincere one and she survives all of the Reverend Mother’s schemes until a new novitiate, Sister Emanuel, played by Rebecca Dayan, joins the shrinking group and Cathleen finds herself having unholy thoughts about her.

I must say that I enjoyed Novitiate much more than I thought I would. It is not a subject that interests me much. But I found myself drawn in and interested in the day to day life of a nun and especially in the theology that guides them. Some of that exposition could have been smoother but that is something I can forgive especially in the face of a fine production by writer and first time director Margaret Betts. She leads a leisurely pace through this world that is unknown to most of us but I never found myself bored. I didn’t look at my watch once.

The acting was exemplary. All the novitiates were convincing, especially Margaret Qualley, who portrays her struggles on a usually impassive face. But special mention goes to Melissa Leo who by turns breathes fire and evokes sympathy as an authority figure who is out of her time and beginning to sense her own obsolescence. Leo’s name is generally mentioned around Oscar time and she’s getting a lot of buzz for this performance.

I’ve always heard good things about Vatican II. It preached tolerance for other faiths and recommended more open and accessible masses. Nuns were told—and they were told, having had no seat on the reform committees—that they could wear regular clothes if they wished. But they also lost that special relationship with God. The Church decreed that they were no more special than any other female member of the faith. For women who had given up everything for this idea, it was a blow. A note at the end of the film reported that nuns left the Church by the thousands at this time.

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