During an early moment in “Novitiate,” a group of breathless and beautiful young girls—the latest group of postulants to the Sisters of Beloved Rose—are exchanging their origin stories. What made them join a religious order? One says that her mother always felt “one child should be sacrificed” to the church; another reveals that several close relatives are sisters, “so I guess it’s in my blood.” But it is Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), the Catholic convert with the purest belief, whose genuine devotion shames all those around her. “I just thought it was the most beautiful idea,” she says, “to be able to spend my entire life devoted to love.”
Oh, the irony. In “Novitiate,” director Maggie Betts’s surface-dwelling exploration of religious vocation and intramural Catholic politics, the order of Beloved Rose is portrayed as many things —a cult, a 12-step program and even, at times, a kind of terrorist organization. But love is not what motivates. “God is my motivation,” says the fearsome Reverend Mother Marie St. Claire (Melissa Leo), who regards herself as a conduit to the Almighty. Love—in the sense of agape, at least—is in short supply in this universe.
In “Novitiate,” the order of Beloved Rose is portrayed as a cult, a 12-step program and even, at times, a kind of terrorist organization.
Set in the early ’60s, “Novitiate” is yet another tale of the trauma suffered by the religious and their orders in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. We are told in a postscript that “the Church witnessed a mass exodus of nuns” following Vatican II and that 90,000 sisters “renounced their vocations and left their convents.” More important, the remaining sisters’ standing among the faithful was changed. In one of the many instances of foreshadowed theological doom scattered throughout Ms. Betts’s screenplay, one postulant says to another, in effect, won’t it be wonderful to know you’re special in the eyes of God? Vatican II will tell them that they are, essentially, not.
The reverend mother knows. She has been getting Vatican II updates from her archbishop (Denis O’Hare) for about three years, but her strategy has been to ignore the whole thing or at least keep it from the youngest of her cloistered underlings. (One older nun, who has apparently gotten wind of what is happening in Rome, appears at mealtime ranting and stark naked except for her wimple; the portents are simply too much for her to bear.) In Marie St. Claire, the stress of what may or may not befall her order manifests itself in her sadistic treatment of her weakest charges—Sister Sissy (Maddie Hasson), for instance, whom she bullies into a floor-crawling exercise in self-abasement. Ms. Leo is well-practiced at the art of playing hard, embittered women, but it is not her fault if the reverend mother still feels like a cliché.
Much feels this way in “Novitiate,” including the shattered girlish joy of the postulants, as they are marched through a process portrayed as soul-crushing and cruel. “Put your hand down,” the reverend mother says to the tender candidates before her. “Postulants don’t have questions. And you are free to go home.” She dismisses several for infractions real and imagined, including a rather predictable skirmish with lesbianism; her formidable nuns arrive during prayer time like ICE agents, ushering out the no-longer-wanted.
Cathleen’s calling, elevated to such a height it eclipses all those around her, seems to arise out of magic or mental illness or childhood trauma.
Cathleen, though the centerpiece of “Novitiate,” is something of a shallow vessel. Her calling, elevated to such a height it eclipses all those around her, seems to arise out of magic or mental illness or childhood trauma. In the opening scenes, her father exits the home in a torrent of violence and vulgarity, and her newly single Mom later accepts the offer of a scholarship at the local parochial school for her daughter. Being treated kindly by nuns is not usually enough to launch a lifetime spiritual vocation, but it is here, and her mother (a very affecting Julianne Nicholson) treats it with this film’s characteristic restraint. (“A nun?! What are you talking about? That’s just ****ing crazy, Cathleen.”) See what happens when you use bad language?
This is a beautiful-looking film, with beautiful-looking people and many moments of directorial acuity. When the youngest sisters are lining up to have their hair cut, for instance, and most look terrified, Cathleen wears a look of joyful anticipation; her fleeting physical contact with Sister Emanuel (Rebecca Dayan)—who, rumor has it, transferred out of the Sisters of Charity because they were not tough enough—are treated both tastefully and tenderly. And there is something lovely about the novitiates in their gowns, preparing to become brides of Christ. Will Cathleen leave Jesus at the altar? No spoilers here, but there is a coyness about “Novitiate” that makes a viewer not care so very much.