Writer-director Margaret Betts set herself a hell of a task in her first feature: putting us in the heads of young women who long to be “brides of Christ.” Novitiate is set in 1964, when the marriage metaphor for nuns was still potent and could even edge into eroticism. The protagonist, 17-year-old Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), says in the opening voice-over, “People never understand why I want to give it all away to God.” She tells her mother, Nora (Julianne Nicholson), that she’s “in love” and embarks on the yearlong training, first as a postulant, then a novitiate, to see if she’ll have the strength to consummate her religious crush. But for all kinds of reasons, Jesus plays hard to get.
As Betts portrays it, the training is a sort of religious boot camp, requiring one to forswear human intimacy, live one’s life according to a set of bells, and, if required, self-flagellate with a cattail whip. Cathleen finds all that distracting, seeing no contradiction between a desire for human contact and the love of God. Plainly she hasn’t read much on the subject — God can be rather jealous. It was the violent dissolution of her parents’ marriage that kindled her attraction, when she was only 7, to the Catholic Church, and that brought her to the order despite her mother’s mortification. Will that connection hold as she begins to feel more human longings?
In the nastiest and/or sexiest scenes, Novitiate creeps up to the brink of “nunsploitation” but remains for the most part giggle-free. For one thing, the look is arresting: oppressive stonework, looming frescoes, and deep, medieval blacks that heighten the ripeness of the flesh tones. Arvo Pärt’s organ and countertenor setting of “My Heart’s in the Highlands” sounds as if it’s snaking its way down vast, echoing corridors. Cathleen, like the other postulants and novitiates, must walk head down lest they commune with something besides the Holy Spirit.
It would also take a great deal of courage to giggle at Melissa Leo’s reverend mother superior, even from the vantage of one’s theater seat. I rarely recognize Leo from film to film: She disappears into her characters. Here, her features are nearly immobile. The mother superior doesn’t need to expend the effort to move them — she’s too powerful, with too many centuries of Catholic law on her side. Which is not to say she’s doesn’t guard that power fiercely, and with a relish that borders on the sadistic.
After informing her postulants that she alone speaks for God and explaining the meaning of “grand silence” (i.e., don’t talk or else), she asks if they have any questions. A girl sticks up her hand and the mother superior says, “Put your hand down, sister. Postulants don’t have questions.” She tells them they are free to leave anytime and it’s a wonder more don’t given how she tortures them. In one scene, she orders a young woman to crawl around on her knees as penance for accidentally greeting her during “grand silence.” Other girls are merely directed to humiliate themselves in a confessional circle.
There is, however, something concrete eating at the mother superior: Vatican II, that seismic shift in Church policy that threatens to unloose everything holding her world together. She pointedly ignores the new edicts until an archbishop (Denis O’Hare) pays a call and tells her to adapt or get out. She complains that the nuns were not allowed to give any input to the Second Ecumenical Council, which makes her something of a proto-feminist — though her input would likely consist of urging the pope to keep all those medieval restrictions on women firmly in place.
There are so many crosscurrents in Noviatiate that by the end I wasn’t quite sure if the film was pro- or anti-Vatican II. Pro, I guess, but with the proviso that some vital form of connection between women and Jesus has been jettisoned in the name of modernization. Mother superior takes Vatican II as badly as if Jesus had shown up in a leather jacket and shades. And she doesn’t seem to want to give up her private time with those cattails. But it’s the heroine, Cathleen, who must cast the drama’s deciding vote, and her soul seems too wandering to settle for a life behind the gates — particularly when she develops feelings for a quiet but intense novitiate played by Rebecca Dayan.
There are many lines in Novitiate that are too on the nose, and the supporting performances are variable. (The actresses look more like a sorority than Catholic sisters, and it won’t take long for you to find the casts’ selfies in costume on the internet.) But Betts has succeeded in capturing a watershed moment in the life of the Catholic Church — a push to adapt that is, in important ways, at odds with its very origins. Her irresolution makes for excellent drama.