“Novitiate” is a Good Look into Drivers of Behavior

Let’s make this clear: “Novitiate” is in no way a lesbian movie, even though we at AfterEllen are reviewing it. That said, it’s a really good movie. “Novitiate” looks at the drivers of individual behavior in a convent at the pivotal moment the results of the Second Vatican Council were being announced in the early 1960s. It’s part coming-of-age story, part examination of some of the internal schisms over Pope John XXIII’s reforms. And there’s like, one lesbian. Probably.

This movie poster looks a lot more gentle than the movie is.

This movie has several stories within it. First is the story of Cathleen (Margaret Qualley). The daughter of a broken home, she seeks the paternal love and stability that was absent in her childhood through a fervent, subconscious belief that God’s love can act as a proxy and fill this void. She seeks first and foremost “comfort,” a word she uses in a climactic scene near the end of the movie. This quest, however, ultimately leads her to discover that comfort isn’t just given by a distant God, it must be sought in the here and now.

Second is the story of the Reverend Mother of this particular convent of the Sisters of the Blessed Rose in Tennessee, Marie St. Claire (Melissa Leo). The Reverend Mother is quickly finding herself an anachronism: as Pope John XXIII is pushing the Catholic Church towards a gentler, kinder Church, she is clinging to a much more hardline position, a position that supports self-flagellation and draconian self-confession and rewards nuns for their devotion by elevating them above laymen. If the Reverend Mother accepts and implements the results of Vatican II, she is in many ways invalidating and negating all the sacrifices she and the other Roses have made. By trying to tamp down on the results of Vatican II, however, she is becoming increasingly reckless in her abuse of power.

Third is the story of the novitiates (nuns in training). Many of them are there not for love of Christ, but because of family expectations or a naïve view of what being a nun is. As viewers, we recognize that most probably shouldn’t be there, but they struggle forward nevertheless with the training, trudging onward towards a lifetime that guarantees they will never feel the touch of another hand upon them in friendship or comfort and they will never leave the convent grounds, even to attend the funerals of their own parents.

And then there’s Sister Emanuel. Unlike the teenagers, she is clearly an adult. And slightly less clearly, although enough to be noticeable if you’re paying attention, she appears to be struggling to repress an attraction to the same sex.

Today I learned that nuns are literal Brides of Christ.

There are two difficult aspects of this movie: first, it is almost impossible to watch without immediately having to confront the influence of your own specific, preconceived notions about both religion in general and the Catholic Church specifically. A scene of nuns walking down a high school corridor, for example, immediately hearkens to the reputation of nuns in Catholic schools as being extremely harsh.

The several ceremonies shown in which aspiring nuns are literally dressed as Brides of Christ is likely to spark an intellectual and/or emotional response about this unusual practice within Catholicism. And of course, any dramatic movie involving the Catholic clergy, regardless of its overall topic, immediately triggers the memory of the child abuse problems that occurred within the Catholic Church (the key theme of the movie “Doubt”). Thus viewers enter the movie from its outset with their own baggage.

Second, it is hard for “Novitiate” to escape the tropes inherent to movies about nuns. Viewers are conditioned to expect the Reverend Mother to be an unforgiving taskmaster (even the comedy “Sister Act” had a stern Mother Superior), and this movie does not deviate from that trope. Old nuns are wrinkly, hidebound, and distant, young nuns are frivolous and wayward, and so it goes. Although “Novitiate” does its best to take an impartial view of the Catholic Church and to justify the cruelty of the Reverend Mother , it nevertheless cannot break out of this pre-established mold.

“Dear Jesus: please be my boyfriend.”

The cinematography and directing are top notch, a stellar feat for a debut film by director Margaret “Maggie” Betts. Other kudos go to Leo, who will undoubtedly receive an Oscar nomination for her tour de force performance, and Julianne Nicholson, who plays Cathleen’s horrified, powerless, uncomprehending, atheist mother. Nicholson’s acting talents were wasted on “Law and Order: Criminal Intent,” and she’s fantastic here.

Not present in this film: men. The only men who have even a few minutes of screen time are Cathleen’s absent father, an archbishop, and the convent’s priest. However, at the end of the movie, the Reverend Mother makes a biting observation: the decisions at Vatican II were made entirely by men without consulting any of the women (nuns) who would be affected. This could be a critique of women’s reproductive issues in 2017.

A final note on the lesbian content in this film: yes, it exists, but mostly just to act as a catalyst for the movie’s crescendo. The same-sex contact is not really about love or attraction or sexual orientation, but rather about finding a human connection in an environment in which the most basic human relationships are cut off. The movie could have reached the same ending without it, but in context it did drive the storyline forward. So watch the movie because it’s a good movie, but not because you’re hoping for substantial lesbian content.

“Novitiate” was written and directed by Maggie Betts, and premieres in Los Angeles and New York October 27.