Opening Friday, Nov. 24
Writer-director Maggie Betts's Novitiate is a quietly stunning historical drama about a group of nuns trying to keep the faith against an encroaching modern world—one which, by 1965, has breached even the conservative Catholic Church. The film follows the spiritual journey of aspiring nun Cathleen (played with wide-eyed brilliance by Margaret Qualley) and her fellow initiates into the highly ascetic, ritualized daily life of a particularly strict nunnery. She's a quick study, but her initial unquestioning devotion begins to erode under the prohibition against touch that so defines the nun's vocation. As we witness each novice's struggle with doubt, it becomes clear that the intense, inchoate desires that first drove these young women to the convent also come to threaten their faith.
When the liberalizing reforms known as Vatican II come knocking on the monastery door, the Reverend Mother Superior Marie Sinclair, played with ferocious authoritarian derision by Melissa Leo, doubles down on traditions such as humiliating confession, enforced silence, and corporal punishment. When the Reverend Mother furiously commands a novice to use "the discipline," a cat o'nine tails made of rope, on herself as penance, the medieval history of the institution becomes disturbingly visceral.
One of the film's triumphs is how effectively but subtly it uses costuming and lighting to dramatize the conflicts between tradition and modernity. When the novices exchange their wimples for mod satin wedding gowns to marry Jesus, Kat Westergaard's limpid cinematography of stoic faces through gauzy veils transmits all the ambivalent longing and melancholy of a ritual that is absolutely alien to the modern viewer. When the novices kneel around the Mother Superior in a candle-lit room, we know we've entered the dark recesses of tradition.
Based on the memoirs of several nuns who left the church during Vatican II, Betts's spare, sensitive script captures the jarring tensions that define the young nuns' lives. Though pulled toward a secular world in which the very idea of God seems increasingly untenable, they have sought out a devout sphere in which loving God means the total effacement of worldly desires. The film strikes a fine balance between taking the nuns' desires for God and community seriously while also casting a severely critical eye at the institution of the church, resisting the urge to romanticize its repression of women's sexuality.
Novitiate is a nuanced, elegant portrait of a community facing its own extinction and the questions of faith, authority, and identity raised by the waning of a powerful institution. Most important, the film does something rare, portraying women's experience in all its philosophical complexity during a time of great historical change.