Margaret Betts's 2017 film Novitiate is, strangely, a film about nuns. Unlike other cinematic representations of the lives of religious sisters – I'm thinking here, for example, of the depiction of Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J., in the 1995 adaption of her book Dead Man Walking– the film does not meander into the fields of social justice or the schooling of urban youth. These uplifting charisms, for which religious sisters are especially known in the Church in America, remain absent. Instead this film penetrates emphatically and singularly into the life of the cloister, the convent, the nunnery.
The basic plot of the film follows the vocation story of a girl in 1950s America. Born to a non-religious mother and a wayward father in an unnamed rural setting, Cathleen Harris is first taken at age eight to a Catholic mass on a kind of exploratory outing with her mother. She remarks later at dinner that she liked that the church had been “peaceful.” When her father abandons the family, Cathleen is enrolled on scholarship in a Catholic school run by religious sisters. From there she resolves to enter the convent of the Sisters of the Blessed Rose (a fictional community of women religious).
So life begins in the nunnery. Woman walk around clad in various black and white outfits denoting their status as postulants, novices, and fully professed nuns. Throughout the film, though, the focus rests on Cathleen and her fellow postulants. A great silence is observed, mass is celebrated according to the Tridentine rite, rosaries are prayed with feverish devotion. All is ordered by a bell, which ushers in a “Great Silence” during which speech is strictly forbidden. But the film makes clear that the cloister is truly ordered by the mother superior, Reverend Mother, who reminds the sisters that because God is not there to run the convent Himself, when she speaks her voice “will serve as a stand-in for His.”
The tension of the film is twofold: inside the convent, the postulants struggle with doubts about their fitness for the vows of a nun, primarily due to uncertainties of their own purity and trust in Christ. Outside the convent, however, the storms of the Second Vatican Counsel are brewing, a process which sends the mother superior into panic and despair. “Do you think the Church is in need of change? I happen to think the Church is perfect the way it is,” she says during a heated discussion with the postulant master, a young nun whose concerns about Reverend Mother's silence toward the Counsel, coupled with her own regrets at entering the convent at 16, prove unbearable. Internally and externally, the temptations of the world hold sway.
Yet the film does not depict the lives of the nuns as wholly joyless or desolate. After taking their temporary vows, the new novices dance around a fire in the countryside, proclaiming their love for God. Indeed, Betts's script does well to convey a balanced and believable series of moods and deeply human motivations behind the various characters. Such a nuanced telling is, of course, a tenuous tightrope walk between entertaining melodrama and honest-to-life realism. Near the end of this steady balancing act, I fear, Betts's film falls short.
Somewhat early in the film, the idea of love is thematized in no uncertain terms: “Love,” a schoolroom nun insists, “is sacrifice.” This is a point that Reverend Mother drives home, too, as she speaks of purging the postulants of the delusion that Jesus is some kind of invisible best friend. On the contrary, she claims, Jesus is a master. Cathleen herself, in an opening voiceover, testifies to the power of a truly fulfilling love found in God, whose love, we are reminded in the homily of a priest in the following scene, is unconditional. The film sets us up, then, for a theological sense of love, of caritas, God's unending love toward humans, which we can, by grace, reflect back to Him.
Despite this promising start, the film culminates with a scene that would be surprising … were the film not a product of the 21st - century sense of “modern” sexuality. The most disappointing element of this scene is not that it is there, nor, indeed, that it is expectedly Sappho-erotic in content, but rather that the buildup to this midnight expression of suppressed sensual longing lacks suitable pretexts. Granted, one set of young women is sent home for “seeking comfort in each other” in a “relationship that was veering toward something inappropriate.” And sure, one of the novices has transferred to the convent for its stricter rules which can make things “easier” while the other punishes herself earlier for being sexually aroused. Yet hardly any clear signposts crop up in the film to make the nighttime encounter intelligible. One would be forgiven, I think, for scratching one's head by the time the scene is over.
But this is once again not even the disappointing part. Perhaps such erotic rendezvous really did occur in convents in the 1960s, and perhaps the suppression of desires could instigate such desperate actions. The issue arises more from the justification of the encounter in a subsequent scene.
One of the two sisters, without interrogation, confesses before the mother superior and her fellow novices that she has been “intimate” with another sister to feel “comforted, wanted, loved.” Indeed, she expresses that “I wanted someone to make me feel something more than God can give me.” This feeling, she justifies in turn as free of moral corruption: “I don't think it was a sin, I don't think it was a sin, because it didn't feel like a sin, it felt like I'm supposed to feel.”
At this point, the contradiction between the earlier definition of love as sacrifice and love as, ostensibly, some kind of feeling should have everyone agape, or at least speechless. How could a character previously bent on “unconditional divine love” transition so abruptly to a starkly emotivist view of love?
This, ultimately, is the problem with this film. It pulls a sort of bait-and-switch, proffering a deep sense of love, however rigorous and demanding it might be, only to valorize a view of love as a warm and fuzzy feeling. Yet even this is only the start. In the erotic encounter itself, the one sister murmurs repeatedly the plea: “comfort me, comfort me, comfort me.” What she gets in return, however, is not merely comfort but arousal. Not only is love reduced to one of its symptoms – good feeling – but comfort and intimacy is conflated with arousal to boot.
Much more can be said on the matter. I, however, find solace in saying that this film is a rich and deep one that careens, unexpectedly but ultimately unsurprisingly, into the “modern” view of love as the sensuous desires of one isolated individual for another.
Perhaps, though, Betts's film redeems itself through its powerful portrayal of a tragedy far deeper than that of one young woman's struggles with sexuality: namely, the cruel and unjust death of the nunnery as a way of life in the wake of Vatican II. In what is perhaps the most tear-jerking moment of the film, the Reverend Mother reads out the dictates of the Counsel regarding nuns: they will no longer be encouraged to wear the habit, they no longer will be regarded as especially beloved by Christ, they will be laity like any other. Earlier the mother superior notes that “now the Church is trying to invalidate all that, saying none of it matters.” This communal death, this secularization of the nunnery by churchmen who, ironically, use traditional routes of authority to undermine the traditional practices of the nuns, demands atonement.
One can only hope that God's call will be heard for these communities, echoed in Hamlet's cry to Ophelia: “Get thee to a nunnery!”