Earlier this year, we were treated to the nuns-behaving-badly comedy ‘The Little Hours’. Now we’re getting Margaret Betts’ sad, sincere, and painfully true exploration of the misogynistic horrors of marrying God in ‘Novitiate’. Somewhere between the two is a masterpiece that we’ll never see.
‘The Little Hours’ was too flippant and one-note in its humor. ‘Novitiate’ is too painfully long and sincere. It’s a shame they can’t be combined, but at least ‘Novitiate’ is worth the pain of watching this house of Catholic horrors.
Our protagonist is Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), a young and awkward girl from a broken home in rural Tennessee in the early 1960s. Her defiantly non-Christian mother (Julianne Nicholson) sends her to a Catholic school for a better education, and soon she’s spotted as an outsider and invited to find a calling in the Church. She decides to become a nun against her mother’s objections and enrolls in a strict program run by Melissa Leo’s Reverend Mother. At first, Cathleen and an ensemble cast of young women find themselves struggling through the challenges of the training, but ultimately feeling fulfilled by their choice to give up the outside world in order to marry Christ and find a calling in the Holy Church. It’s a strange world, but seems to bring a certain amount of peace and purpose.
Of course, writer/director Betts’ film is hardly intended to play as some sort of extended advertisement for the Catholic Church. Her goals are more complicated than that. She specifically sets the story in an era when the Vatican II made sudden and vast changes to the medieval practices of sending unwanted women off to a nunnery. Her film slowly and delicately unveils the cruel truths beneath the habits. This isn’t just a life of self-imposed exile and poverty for faith. It’s one of torment between women caught in a world with no other options, where cruel, humiliating, and even violent rituals unfold in the name of God. Not everyone experiences the horrors, and Cathleen’s own journey is a slow and arduous descent into the hidden darkness of practicing nuns in a claustrophobic setting, hinged on a revelation both surprising and heart-breakingly inevitable that it casts so many of these practices in freshly horrifying light through contemporary eyes.
All that being said, one of the most intriguing elements of Betts’ film is the way in which this isn’t an outright horror story of institutionalized and ritualized abuse. Instead, Betts takes her time to explore the genuine sense of religious joy and purpose that these institutions held for young women without options. Many of the girls feel spiritual fulfillment, and as horridly cruel as Melissa Leo’s character can often act, she’s also given scenes that explore how she became this person that are painfully moving in ways that prevent easily dismissal or demonization. Even the Catholic Church itself is somewhat let off the hook by the fact that it did eventually recognize and right the wrongs of the situation. ‘Novitiate’ is a movie that defies easy categorizations of right/wrong, good/evil, and obvious blame. The issue is more complicated than that. The practices had purpose and pleasures. However, like so many institutions (especially religious institutions), abuses of power and misunderstandings of purpose perverted noble ideas into painfully inhumane prisons of faith.
There’s a lot to chew on here and Betts carefully takes her time to explore every avenue and give viewers the opportunity to draw their own conclusions without forcing meanings and themes too literally. At times, the world is presented so lovingly that it’s easy to be seduced, while the cruelty and crimes play with such cold reality that audiences never feel manipulated. Performances are extraordinary from all the women involved (pointedly and deliberately, men are rarely shown in this world and their appearances typically come with a whiff of condescension and power games). Melissa Leo is remarkable in a role that easily could have been cartoonish evil, but the actress plays her with such empathy and quiet cruelty that never crosses over. She’s both a terrifying authoritarian and a heartbreakingly lost soul. The performance is some of the best work of her impressive career. Margaret Qualley is a revelation in her lead role, carefully doling out the tragedy of her character in small doses so that she seems so sweet and on the right path until the reality is revealed and her descent is almost unwatchably tragic.
Truthfully, there’s not a less than stellar performance in the film. Credit obviously goes to director Betts for casting so well and giving all of her actresses the space to create distinctly broken nuns. The film is well shot, yet unfussy. The focus is the story and the people. The script builds them all up with careful depth so that no one feels less than whole. Impressively, the film raises so many big and powerful questions without ever settling on answers (easy or otherwise). ‘Novitiate’ may criticize the practices of nuns harshly and fairly, but at the same time understands the power and importance of faith for those who need it.
This isn’t a movie that acts as anti-Catholic propaganda. If anything, it’s almost too measured in its empathy to register. As potent as young Cathleen’s story is at the center, Melissa Leo’s damaged mother has the most interesting arc with the most to say about Catholicism, faith, and nuns. A better and braver movie would have centered on her. That’s not the ‘Novitiate’ that exists, but what’s here remains fascinating, if a bit too long and unfocused.