Film Review: Novitiate

By Sr. Anne Lythgoe, O.P. 

I came across a New York Times story about Catholic sisters today — it is well worth your time.  I suggest you read it if you plan to see the new film: Novitiate. It might be a good inoculation against a sad, tedious and inaccurate depiction of religious life in the 1960s.

I have been a happy and healthy Dominican Sister for over 40 years, and I was optimistic that Novitiate would be a good film. I’m really sorry I wasted two hours on it. It does not do justice to the times, the complexity of the changes that began to emerge with Vatican II, and it is not even accurate in describing the process of becoming a nun.

Cathleen, a young 18-year-old, played by Margaret Qualley , begins the story with a deep happiness over her sense of being called by God, being in love with God. She comes from a small town in Tennessee, of an agnostic mother and absent father. Why the feisty mother, played by Julianne Nicholson, agrees to send her daughter to a Catholic school run by the sisters is a bit curious. I’m not really sure that Cathleen is Catholic, which would be a reason not to accept her into the community. There are some basic requirements.

Just for the record, back then, in case  readers do not know this, a novice wore a wedding gown only once, when she began the novitiate, thus the Bride of Christ idea. But that was it. In this film I think that happened three times. It may seem like a small detail, but the Director/Writer Margaret Betts could have easily verified basic facts. She missed it.

Cathleen comes to the community willing and eager to learn, but that spirit is quickly dampened by the rigors of rules and pious practice. Because of all the nonsense she has to go through with Reverend Mother, she quickly begins to feel isolated and hungry for human connection. At 18, no wonder her sexuality begins to cause her conflicts. Too bad that had to be the focus of a predictable story line. It could have been so much more interesting.

The Chapter of Faults (a practice of admitting your shortcomings to the community) was actually real but nobody in real life crawled around on the floor — that was a silly depiction of the practice.   More to the point, the practice never required that a sister talk about matters of conscience, only infractions of the community rules. Reverend Mother used the sessions to humiliate sisters, a cringe worthy moment in the story. So I just wonder where Margaret Betts got her information. Did she interview anybody who actually stayed and found happiness in religious life? I doubt it.  I think she just made all this up from the prevailing myths of our culture. Worse, she may have talked with former members who only have bitter and distorted memories of their experience. Who knows.

One particular scene, completely unexplainable, took place in the refectory during a meal, when, without warning, an elderly sister bursts into the room stark naked except for what looked like a night veil on her head, obviously in great anguish. The reaction of the community was baffling, no one seemed to be upset or tried to reach out and assist the woman, who, I am guessing, was having some kind of psychotic break. This made absolutely no sense and only adds to the distorted and exaggerated myths that people are exposed to in too many American films about Sisters. It’s all a cheap shot.

There was no joy, very little sense of companionship or sense of being part of something exciting. No real narrative about what the impact of Vatican II had on Catholic thought, just a few superficial conversations between the Archbishop and the Reverend Mother. No one else seems to have any idea about what was going on in the wider Church, no discussion or even mention of it. So the struggle that Reverend Mother is having is more an affront to her ironclad authority rather than a genuine wrestling with change. She doesn’t even talk about it with anybody, only announces it in a hysteric pulpit announcement. Vatican II just did not happen that way.

Yes, Mellissa Leo’s performance, as the Reverend Mother, is powerful and noteworthy, but it is a caricature, an exaggerated Nun-zilla. It is a bleak and morose story of Novice Cathleen’s struggle to survive a mean and closed-minded mother superior whose ego should have driven her to confession.

Cathleen’s struggles are left largely unspoken, she shares very little of her concerns with others seeks out no advice or counsel about her feelings.  In the end we are left to assume she left the convent. The closing scene has her at the altar about to make final vows, with the camera fading to black and the screen noting that thousands of sisters left religious life in the year after Vatican II.

Too bad, this could have been a great story, with compelling dialogue, dramatic tension, and a breakthrough moment of personal change. Instead it was a painful exaggeration of the predictable inaccurate stereotypes of Catholic Sisters. It gives people who have always hated the Catholic Church a good reason to keep hating it.

Margaret Betts was scheduled to Skype in and have a conversation with the audience at the theater we attended. I’m kind of glad she could not make it. The sisters in the audience would have had a hard time coming up with something nice to say.

Sr. Anne Lythgoe, OP is on the Leadership Team of the Dominican Sisters of Peace.