Novitiate: Nuns Caught in Reform Storm Find Habits Hard to Break

By Liam Lacey


The Song of Solomon — an openly sexual Old Testament poem about the maiden who notes that her beloved is pasturing his sheep among her lilies and who compares her breasts to clusters of fruit — doesn't sound holy to us today, though there's a tradition that identifies the maiden with the Church, and the bridegroom with Christ.

I was a little disappointed that writer/director Margaret Betts employs that Biblical passage in her intelligently sincere potboiler, Novitiate, about a teenager who falls hard for Jesus and his Church around the time of the Second Vatican Council.  Surely, the urge to meld with the Divine isn't just sublimated sexuality?

Margaret Qualley as a young, naive nun crca 1964 in Novitiate.

Margaret Qualley as a young, naive nun crca 1964 in Novitiate.

But I could be wrong. Samantha Bee, the TV host, has described her own intense attraction to the images of Jesus as an integral part of her Catholic girlhood ("I mean, he was really designed that way for young girls to find him sexy and attractive.")

To its credit, Novitiate, is as heated with ideas as it is with fire in the flesh.  Set in 1964, follows an unworldly 17-year-old, Cathleen Harris (Margaret Qualley, the luminous young star of television's The Leftovers) when she comes arrives at the Sisters of Blessed Rose monastery. Cathleen seeks peace and purity, an alternative to her family, with her run-away dad and scrappy, working-class mother (Julianne Nicholson).  Her discovery of the rituals and codes of the church is that of a naive, unbaptized outsider which justifies the movie's anthropologist-on-Mars perspective. The emphatic light and shadow of the cinematography is deliberately Old Masterly, while ecclesiastical music, both traditional and contemporary, pumps up the exalted mood.

Presumably, if Cathleen had been raised as a Catholic since childhood, the pomp and rules wouldn't seem so overwhelming. "We have two kinds of silence here, regular silence and grand silence," announces the Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo).

When exploring the intricacies of double-measure silence, the adolescent girls have certain feelings that become difficult to repress. As a last resort, they can resort to hitting themselves with the knotted rope Reverend Mother keeps in a drawer, though it's a toss-up whether they punish or incite those wayward urges.

I enjoyed Leo's performance as fire-breathing tragic dragon,  guarding a treasure that's already been taken. She clashes with the pretty young nun (Glee's Dianna Agron) with her new-fangled notions, and later, and the condescending bishop (Denis O'Hare) who comes to set her straight about the new rules: "You honestly expected them to have their own voice, the sisters?"

Oh, those silly nuns. Bett's screenplay has a semi-feminist angle here, highlighting the injustice done to nuns, architects of the Catholic education system, who were demoted with the all-male Vatican’s council's reforms, though I suspect the mass exodus of women from the church in the 1960s was less about disappointment they could no longer follow the old rules than a taste for freedom.

Novitiate. Written and directed by Margaret Betts. Starring: Margaret Qualley, Melissa Leo, Julianne Nicholson and Dianna Agron. Opens November 3 in Toronto (Yonge-Dundas) and Vancouver (International Village); November 10 in Montreal and throughout the fall in other cities.