Produced by Maven Pictures 
Written and directed by Maggie Betts 
Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics 

Growing up in the 1950’s, I was regaled with many stories about nuns and their punishing ways.  Having attended Roman Catholic grammar school through the third grade, I did some regaling myself despite knowing full well that my tales were just that: tales embroidered with lurid fantasies involving the sting of rulers and yardsticks wielded by women in black veils.

Then came the sea change in Church affairs known as the Second Vatican Council that convened from 1962 to 1965.  The Council was determined to alter many things.  The Latin liturgy would be replaced by the vernacular, the laity would be allowed into more decision-making posts, and medieval cruelty would be purged from Church disciplines.  But on the way to achieving these reforms, something odd happened.  The horror stories we used to tell of nuns dwindled into truth, and thus lost their innocence.  Here’s an example.  When my wife was teaching her fourth-grade class in our parish’s grammar school c. 1964, she overheard an aged sister telling her sixth-grade class that, under the pain of mortal sin, they were no longer to believe in the story of Adam and Eve.  This good woman clearly had attended a Vat II re-education camp and was now determined to wipe away the errors of the past.  She was as determined to give up Adam and Eve as she had been determined to accept them six decades before.  Even her once-beloved St. Patrick had to go.  One truth about nuns was that they were fabulously obedient.  Another was that they were willing to crawl through muck, mud, and fire to save souls and heal lives.  This second truth is frequently and wantonly overlooked even by their coreligionists.

This brings me to Novitiate, an oddly pertinent film about faith and vocation.  The story is told through the eyes of Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), a woman of 17 so alienated from the violence and chaos of her broken home in 1964 that she longs for the peace she sees in the Church, and decides to join the convent of The Order of the Blessed Rose.  “I’m in love,” she announces one afternoon to her mother, Nora (Julianne Nicholson), who is astonished to learn the object of the girl’s love is not a boy but God.  She’s appalled by her daughter’s choice but is powerless to reverse it.

Upon their arrival at the convent, Reverend Mother (a chilling Melissa Leo) gives Cathleen and her fellow postulants a frosty welcome, informing them with feline delicacy that since God isn’t in the immediate surroundings, she will be His voice.  Her meaning is unmistakable.  She’s to be obeyed, or else.  What’s the “or else”?  We find out right away.  After her greeting, Mother invites questions.  A postulant raises her hand, only to be chastised roundly.  Postulants don’t ask questions, Mother crisply responds and then directs the girl to leave the convent immediately and everlastingly.  If Cathleen is shocked, she doesn’t show it; she’s just that sure that this is the life for her.  Mother well knows that her charges are in her grip.  While she tells them they’re free to leave whenever they want, she knows only a vanishing few will do so.  Too much militates against it.  In 1964 few were the novice women who would go back on their decision.  The embarrassment was too daunting.  You’d be seen as having failed.  Or worse, as having sinned your way back into your ordinary life.  I recall the whispering over one girl from my neighborhood who left the convent.  The whisperers were understanding, of course, but you couldn’t miss the satisfaction in their tone.  A woman or man who reneged on her or his vow of chastity would face the tolerant contempt of those who themselves would never have considered such commitment.  It’s a case of getting back at those who presumed to be better than yourself.

Director Maggie Betts’s presentation of the girls who have signed on to become nuns at 17 and 18—here girls is the right word—is crucial to her unspoken argument, which is that the Church was recruiting young women at an age when they weren’t adequately prepared to make such a lifelong decision.  When discussing their reasons for wanting to become a nun, one postulant answers, with touching innocence, that hers was Audrey Hepburn.  She had seen Fred Zinnemann’s 1959 film The Nun’s Story, and was so moved by the performance of the beautifully sincere Miss Hepburn that she couldn’t resist following her lead into a life of vibrant self-sacrifice.  Many young people—women especially, I believe—are like that.  What could be more romantic than total surrender of herself to Jesus’ masculine command?  Others are more circumspect.  They talk of surrendering their lives to less celebrity-driven causes.  They want to do redemptive and healing work.  Strangely, Betts doesn’t identify the specific works they wish to perform.  Are they envisioning lives of teaching or nursing?  Or is the order purely dedicated to prayerful contemplation?

As young women, they’re of course beset by sexual urges, which Betts acknowledges discreetly with shadowy glimpses of eroticism, both masturbatory and lesbian.  The Catholic League has condemned the film for this, but it seems to me an honest depiction of the unintended consequences of cloistered life.  Keeping such things veiled from view may be politely tactful, but, given the stakes at issue, it’s hardly helpful.

When it comes to Reverend Mother’s tyrannical behavior, Betts is not attacking the Church, but rather dramatizing how its institutional self has bred opportunities for the warped and embittered to wield power over others whom they would never have been able to control in secular contexts.  Betts may not be the ideal candidate for this job.  She doesn’t seem to know enough to treat it with authority.  Nevertheless, it’s a job that needs to be performed.  When the Church’s hierarchy is operating with moral integrity, they manage the task quite well.  Of course, when some of its officials don’t have the necessary integrity, well-meaning but purblind martinets and worse can come to the fore.  Mother has the additional challenge of feeling the Church, caught up in the enthusiasm of the Vatican Council, has abandoned her.  Her boast had been that she had entered the convent 40 years earlier, and since then has never stepped outside its precincts, doing her duty honorably if a mite too strictly.

As Cathleen, a woman trying to navigate her storm-tossed life honorably, Margaret Qualley invests her character with a fine and utterly believable blend of obedience, intelligence, and vulnerability.

As for Melissa Leo’s Reverend Mother, I’ve been fortunate not to have had much contact with such autocrats in my life.  Nevertheless, I have to say Leo convincingly registers the talent such people have for sadistically wielding their power from behind a mask of selfless solicitude.  Her Mother is clearly convinced she’s acting only for the good of others.  That’s why her victims can’t be sure where her administrative concern shades into sadism.  And kudos to Denis O’Hare as the monsignor tasked with overcoming Mother’s resistance to the Vatican II reforms.  He’s a worthy snake insinuating himself into her good graces before revealing his particular fang of authority.

One more thing needs to be said, and that’s about the script.  I wonder how Betts, who is not a Catholic and by her own account barely a Christian, could have known to write it.  The story tells us that Reverend Mother took up her vocation for much the same reasons Cathleen has.  Forty years earlier she had entered the convent expressly to escape the world’s moral compromises.  She had found the lack of principled convictions in secular life intolerable.  The Church offered a harsh but clarifying certainty to which she pledged herself unwaveringly.  When Vatican II came along she was suddenly and cruelly cut adrift.  Many Catholics felt they were being abandoned by the self-righteous and often sneering among the hierarchy who were and are as high-handedly intolerant of deviations from the new orthodoxy as their progenitors had been of those who had refused to toe the line set down under the old dispensation.  Once disbelieving Adam and Eve was heretical; believing their story is now regarded as a contemptible lack of theological sophistication worthy only of unequivocal denunciation.  Where did this leave the rank-and-file faithful?  Confused, at best; angry, at worst.

Vatican II seems to me to have been an instance of new wine being poured into the old wineskin.  As Luke’s Gospel informs us, this is a calamitous practice, for it breaks the skin and thus loses the wine; neither external structure nor essential content is adequately protected.