Every now and then you see a movie that sticks with you long after you watch it. Recently, I had seen such a film. I planned on seeing Novitiate during Sundance back in January- but I didn’t realize that I had bought a ticket for a venue in Salt Lake City. I was unable to go to due the congestion from the Women’s March. I had to let my ticket go to waste. So patiently, I waited for a few months until Novitiate was released at my local theater.
Director & Writer: Margaret (Maggie) Betts
Starring: Margaret Qualley, Julianne Nicholson, Dianna Agron, Melissa Leo
As of recently, I have been engrossed in films that cover the controversial topic of religion and its complexities. Novitiate is no exception. Along with a concurrent Sundance release- The Little Hours, Novitiate was flogged by the Catholic League for its negative portrayal of the church. Like The Little Hours, Novitiate also hits on a dangerous subject, the effects of female suppression. Novitiate is more refined, telling its story through the eyes of a teenage girl on the cusp of womanhood. It dives into the mystic romance one experiences with God- or better yet, the void a relationship with Him attempts to fill.
Cathleen a stoic young woman, finds comfort in a deep relationship with Christ. Immediately, I was in awe of Cathleen’s beauty. She was very regal, very elegant, and very doe-like. Her features mimic a modern-day Snow White- seemingly pure and innocent, and lost in the idea of romance. She perfectly imitates the sentiments of the euphoria of a relationship with Christ. At least, its honeymoon phase. She thrives in quiet solitude, enamored by His presence. After spending years in Catholic school, Cathleen makes the commitment to give her life over to God because she is “in love”. She’s a foil to her mother Nora- a spunky irreligious woman confused by her daughter’s lifestyle. Nora supports Cathleen, but wishes for her to realize that giving herself away to God isn’t the way to live life. She’s an enigma among her fellow Novices, who seem to have more shallow reasons of their pursuit of becoming a part of the convent. Cathleen is pure in her intentions- simply describing her pursuit of membership as something beautiful. Having experienced it myself, complete silence and reflection with God is beautiful. It’s a feeling that is difficult to describe. You’re one with your surroundings. Even though you are physically alone, you are together in spirit with Him. A relationship with Him is one of trust and true vulnerability.
Cathleen has been impacted little by the outside world, but her faith is called into question as time passes and she’s exposed to the doubt of her sisters. She grows a bond with Sister Mary Grace, a lovely, but conflicted sister who has begun to regret her decision to become a nun. After a heated argument with the Reverend Mother, she decides to leave the convent for good. Finally overcome with the pressures of solitude and the disconnect from society, Mary Grace renounces the Sisterhood, but claims she will still be a member of the church.
The Reverend Mother is a product of her time- a staunch, hardened woman only motivated by her relationship with God. Her methods of initiation into the Order are medieval, and she seeks to keep it that way. After Sister Mary Grace’s departure, and the entrance of a new sister- Emanuelle, Cathleen begins to spiral out of her honeymoon phase with Christ. At last, she’s infected by the intense desire for comfort- and love…beyond what God can provide. She internally wonders what her sisters vocalize. What if God doesn’t love me as much as I love him? Cathleen, Mary Grace, and the other sisters suffer from a lack of human intimacy and warmth. Intimacy is natural, and only the worse can happen if the basic human needs not met. Towards the end of the film, Cathleen questions once and for all if she should become a Bride of Christ forever. As she prays, a crucifix falls off the wall, and clunks onto the floor. Cathleen still proceeds to ceremony…but at a loss for words, and filled with doubt. In the penultimate moment, Cathleen stutters…”I seek…” as Nora eagerly looks onward. The screen goes black and in voice-over, Cathleen says:“I seek something more.”
I could see why this film ruffled feather in the Catholic League. It unearthed a blemish in Catholicism’s history- the mass Exodus of over 90,000 nuns during the rise of Vatican II- the church’s response to the rapidly changing attitudes in the early 1960’s. How would you feel if you had literally given everything to God- only to be told it wasn’t worth it anymore? I’d be devastated myself. The Reverend Mother combats the change, leaving the convent in the dark until she is forced to bring it into modern times. Horrified and heartbroken, the majority of the nuns depart for the real world. Despite the grand betrayal, the Mother decides to stay- having made a vow 40 years prior. What is it about God? We put so much into something that is invisible and so many sacrifices are made in the name of “love”. Novitiate is an unconventional love story, or a story about a young woman’s quest for love. She seeks the love of God, but doesn’t quite find it with Him. Her love is unrequited as life takes over. That in itself is a horrible feeling to experience.
Thanks for reading,
ADRIANA, THE CINEMA SOLOIST