The Second Vatican Council, informally known as Vatican II, lasted from 1962 to 1965 and is widely credited with bringing Catholicism into the modern day. It saw the Catholic Church as suited for a secular world. Befitting its progressive reputation, the council freed nuns of having to meet certain aesthetic requirements and allowed them to enter the world and help the needy. And yet, nary a nun was consulted about the council’s reforms, many of which eliminated traditions that many of these women had come to cherish.
Directed by Margaret Betts, Novitiate opens at this complex historical turning point. Kathleen (Margaret Qualley), a 17-year-old living in middle America, finds comfort in the church and makes the decision to become a nun. Entering the sisterhood just prior to Vatican II, Kathleen finds herself in an isolated, rigidly self-enforced world. Besides the spiritual challenges presented to anyone giving themselves over to God for life, within her convent Kathleen and her peers are subjected to harsh rituals of self-flagellation and public shaming before they can become full-fledged nuns, while the reforms seeking to eliminate such practices are kept hidden from them.
The film’s narrative develops as an on-the-nose articulation of the Catholic devotion to Christ—as romantic passion taken to its extreme. The men Kathleen grew up around, her agnostic mother’s (Julianne Nicholson) itinerant lovers, are framed as fleeting disappointments, backgrounding her decision to seek what the film calls “the love you have to give everything to.” Indeed, Kathleen’s bodily presence is often framed as the focus of her religious devotion and the film underscores that her faith and commitment to God is a physically intimate union, one which surpasses all human relations, at least initially. Admirably, Novitiate devotes passages to people simply praying and often depicts them wrangling with their faith, watching them without condescension, aware of the complex personal battles they may be fighting.
Complementing its ruminations on faith and authority, Novitiate also focuses on the personal and dramatic excesses that result from its young characters’ cloistered lifestyle. In a bonfire celebration just after they enter the novitiate, a grueling training period intended to make them “perfect,” Kathleen and her fellow would-be nuns dance in white dresses screaming into the night, “I love you, God!” This image of outsized youthful exuberance is a precursor to the extremes of sexual temptation and sadistic rituals that will follow Kathleen and her cohorts through their time in the novitiate. Soon, they’re battered by the system, either reduced to lugubrious messes at the feet of their sisters or drawn deeper into forbidden sins of the flesh with them.
The one to blame for all the pain is of course the head of the convent. Melissa Leo’s turn as the Reverend Mother hits like a rap on the knuckles, bringing the occasionally pyrotechnic cruelty stereotypical of the role of an abbess. But what might seem like simply a histrionically severe mother superior is countenanced by Leo’s summoning of a raw fearfulness in the face of the changes that would dismantle the sisterhood which has nourished Reverend Mother for decades. By the film’s end, Leo’s performance turns this woman into a vulnerable victim of a reform which ultimately demoted nuns in the eyes of the church and disregarded the input of its women.
The vacillating nature of Mother Reverend is characteristic of Novitiate as a whole. Although there are entire scenes devoted to rather nuanced and thoughtful insights on the nature of faith during a particularly turbulent time in the Catholic Church, these feel divorced from the narrative’s more highly dramatized scenes. The film’s meditative and excessive sides never quite cohere, giving the impression of watching two distinct films that are jostling against each other, rather than united in a single story.