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In Novitiate, a young woman is torn between her love of God and her own desire

The movie mixes sexuality and spirituality in its story about a convent during the upheavals of Vatican II.

Margaret Qualley in Novitiate
Margaret Qualley in Novitiate.
Sony Pictures Classics
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Stories about nuns living in convents often make for terrific character-driven dramas. By nature, they easily feature a large female cast and seem to provide rich opportunities to explore a wide range of women’s experiences; movies like Ida and The Innocents use their settings to look at not just doubt and belief, but also desire, grief, tragedy, anxiety, and physicality. Nuns dress and live in a community of uniformity, but each nun is an individual with her own emotions and personality and experiences, which can be all the more interesting to explore in the confined context of a convent.

Novitiate is a film about nuns in a strict order who must come to terms with the implications of Vatican II, the reforms enacted by the Roman Catholic church in the 1960s that were meant to adjust the church’s practices to a rapidly modernizing world. It’s a period piece that’s almost reverential, while also lodging critiques of both convent life and the reforms that greatly reduced the number of women who felt compelled to live it. But it’s also about one woman who’s bent on channeling all her desires into serving God, and finding it isn’t a simple task.

Novitiate centers on a young woman who’s in love with God

Set in 1964, the film primarily follows Cathleen (The LeftoversMargaret Qualley), who is raised by a nonreligious single mother (Julianne Nicholson) but ends up in Catholic school and, eventually, decides to enter the convent. A number of other young women enter as well, and Novitiate follows them through their time as fresh-faced postulants hoping to join the order, then as more serious novices — especially as they struggle with their personal fears and desires, including illicit ones.

The highly restrictive nature of the order suits Cathleen, who craves the structure and the sense of belonging to God, with concrete rules for how to grow closer to Him. She is in love with God, in the headlong manner of a teenager with a crush, and with the whole life of religious service.

But she has a proclivity for managing her desires by subjecting herself to humiliation and extreme denial, and as it starts to surface in disturbing ways (including starving herself and self-inflicting bodily punishment), the stringency of life within the walls of the convent becomes dangerous — particularly when her passions begin to shift from God to a fellow novice.

Melissa Leo in Novitiate
Melissa Leo in Novitiate.
Sony Pictures Classics

Presiding over the convent is the severe Reverend Mother Superior (Melissa Leo), whose anger at the way the church’s women are being left out of the reformation decisions — many of which are threatening to change convent life — translates into a helpless frustration that spills onto everyone around her.

Novitiate draws on an old idea, that of the religious life as ecstatic, but it isn’t a devotional film. Instead, it’s a humanistic one, with a complicated and not entirely complimentary perspective on convent life. As such, it’s drawn criticism, though remarkably unfairly framed, from the Catholic League. And its frank depictions of sex make it unlikely to please the faithful.

A better way to understand Novitiate is to think of the film’s mission as one that’s intended to blur the lines between spiritual and physical ecstasy (whether through bodily mortification or intense pleasure) in ways sometimes suggested by Catholic mystics, who have occasionally spoken of their desire for God in erotic terms. But the film also blends in a modern understanding of sexuality, spirituality, individuality, and vocation. And that feels, at least in part, like a solid reflection of the historic church-wide reforms at its core.

The film’s most interesting element is its perspective on the Vatican II reforms

Novitiate’s modern filter results in the film sometimes feeling heavy-handed, but it’s a promising debut from writer and director Maggie Betts that won Betts the Breakthrough Director Award at Sundance in January. And it’s most interesting for how it portrays both Catholicism and the psychological effects of the Vatican II reforms on women who had devoted themselves to the church.

The series of mid-century reforms effectively prompted many crises of faith in women serving the church, resulting in many leaving convents around the world, according to Novitiate’s epilogue. And the film emphasizes the issue that women serving the church at the time were not involved in the Second Vatican Council that handed down the reforms.

One change that Vatican II instituted was proclaiming that nuns were equal to other faithful Catholics, not more special to God. And this was devastating, especially to women who’d devoted their lives to the vocation, only to feel as if the church was saying their efforts didn’t mean very much.

Margaret Qualley appears in Novitiate by Maggie Betts, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
Margaret Qualley in Novitiate.
Mark Levine/Sundance Institute

The sisters experience the deliberation over and creation of the reforms (and especially the changes those reforms brought to their lives) not just as a slight, but as an injustice. But as we witness the journey of some of the novices and nuns who leave, we also get a deeper understanding of why women join religious orders in the first place, and what ultimately motivates them to stay or go.

Novitiate captures something many religious people can understand: the belief, however misguided, that beating oneself (both figuratively and, sometimes, literally) as an act of devotion will make God love us more than he loves other people.

This is a complicated matter, and I suspect one has to actually be Catholic to feel the full weight of the movie. But while Novitiate is unsteady in some places, it’s genuinely moving, bolstered by Qualley’s and Nicholson’s performances in particular, as well as a host of talented supporting actresses. And it ends without resolving every question — which is, in keeping with the eternal uncertainty that comes with a life of devotion, exactly the right choice.

Novitiate opens in theaters on October 26.

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