The 1960s were a confusing time to be a Catholic. Between 1962 and 1965, the Second Vatican Council, informally known as Vatican II, issued a number of declarations and decrees intended to bring the church into the modern era. It was no longer required that Mass be performed in Latin, with the priest facing away from the congregation (and often barely audible). “Mortification of the flesh,” e.g., self-flagellation, was discouraged. Catholics were instructed to be more tolerant toward the sincere religious beliefs held by those of other faiths. These reforms weren’t welcomed by everybody, and Novitiate, written and directed by Maggie Betts, dramatizes their impact on a fictional convent, the Order Of The Sisters Of Blessed Rose. But the film also seeks to depict one particular young nun’s crisis of faith, which really has little to do with Vatican II, except insofar as the fallout emboldened many priests and nuns to abandon their callings altogether. Betts appears to have started out with a rather mundane idea and then stumbled, over the course of her research, onto something much more fruitful. The result is as intriguing and frustrating as that suggests.
Basically, Novitiate chooses the wrong protagonist. Sister Cathleen (Margaret Qualley, from The Leftovers), it’s strongly implied, becomes a nun primarily in an attempt to escape her overbearing mother (Julianne Nicholson, decked out in sinfully garish eyeshadow); the film even flashes back to Cathleen’s childhood, showing her abusive, no-account father (blink and you’ll miss Chris Zylka). Her sincere desire to be a bride of Christ is first challenged by the borderline sadism with which Blessed Rose’s Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo) runs the convent—for a while, Novitiate plays like a distaff Full Metal Jacket, with nuns in training systematically humiliated and emotionally abused by what amounts to a soft-spoken drill sergeant in a habit. Then Cathleen stops eating for a long time, in an effort to be more pure, though it’s weird when her mother visits and freaks out about how much weight she’s supposedly lost (“She looks like she’s dying!”), even though Qualley, who’s otherwise quite good in the role, appears totally healthy.
Eventually, and almost inevitably (especially given that Novitiate premiered at Sundance), Sister Cathleen becomes sexually attracted to a new arrival (Rebecca Dayan), turning the film—or her foregrounded part of it, at least—into a stock, earnest coming-of-age saga. Vatican II didn’t create lesbians, after all, and there’s no indication that Sister Cathleen is even aware of what’s happening in Rome at the time when she succumbs to her impulses. She simply has needs that a life of celibacy can’t fulfill, which is Priest/Nun 101. It doesn’t help that the film’s big sex scene, while tastefully handled, requires Cathleen to repeatedly, obsessively use the word “comfort” as a euphemism for sex. The implication is that her need to be touched isn’t exclusively erotic in nature, but that’s something that movies and TV shows about prison have explored for decades, with men as well as women. As tentatively depicted here, it feels very old hat.
Far more interesting, though addressed only intermittently, is the turmoil experienced by the Reverend Mother, who has no interest whatsoever in seeing the Catholic Church updated. Leo’s performance starts out a bit hammy, in the tradition of frighteningly severe movie nuns, but it soon becomes clear that this is a woman in terror of having her entire sense of purpose eradicated by a group of men thousands of miles away. Novitiate’s finest, most penetrating scene finds the Reverend Mother silently weathering the condescension of her archbishop (Denis O’Hare) as he casually disparages hundreds of years of tradition, then threatens to have her replaced if she doesn’t comply. Even if you agree with his position, it’s impossible not to empathize with her anger at being belittled and ignored. Exactly what that has to do with Sister Cathleen’s standard human carnal urges is unclear, however. Had Novitiate demoted this ingenue and given Leo full rein to get ferocious, the film might have done justice to a pivotal moment in the church’s long history. Instead, we just get to watch a great actor run the scale, from quiet stewing to full-fledged shrieking. It’s one of the year’s best supporting performances, but it should have been the lead.