Novitiate (2017)

  • Time: 123 min
  • Genre: Drama
  • Director: Margaret Betts
  • Cast: Margaret Qualley, Julianne Nicholson, Dianna Agron, Liana Liberato


Set in the early 1960s and during the era of Vatican II, a young woman in training to become a nun struggles with issues of faith, the changing church and sexuality.

One review

  • “We were women in love,” 17-year-old Cathleen says in the opening voiceover of Maggie Betts’ engrossing drama, Novitiate, which aims to understand why such young women with their whole lives ahead of them would want to give it all away to become a bride of Christ. Yet the film doesn’t only examine what it is to be in love with God, it observes what it is to be in love period.

    The film takes place in 1964, right around the time Pope John XXIII is initiating the Vatican II reforms that would bring about radical changes to the Roman Catholic Church. Those changes have yet to reach the Sisters of the Blessed Rose monastery where Cathleen, along with about a dozen other young women, have begun their training as postulants under the leadership of the Reverend Mother Marie St. Clair (Melissa Leo). The young women’s reasons for renouncing their lives range from bending to family pressure to being inspired after seeing Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story; for Cathleen, introduced to religion by her no-nonsense mother Nora (Julianne Nicholson), the peace and tranquility the 12-year-old experiences during her first time in a church seems a respite from her turbulent home life.

    The stirring that awakens within her is further stoked by her time in a parochial school, where she’s taught that love and sacrifice are what differentiate the Catholic faith from all others. By the time she’s 17, the line between the desire for human contact and the love of God is all but erased. “I’m in love!” she declares to her mother, who is horrified at her daughter’s decision to become a nun. Will Cathleen’s faith in that love remain steadfast as she and the other postulants start to grapple with burgeoning desires, questions of identity, and the severe emotional and physical conditions of their training?

    Impeccably executed by Betts, Novitiate is a consistently compelling portrait that touches on the difficulties inherent in being in love – “How do I make him love me?”, “What do I need to do to keep his love?”, “What do I need to change about myself to be worthy of him?” – but also on the opposing factions within the monastery with regards to the changes ordered by Vatican II. Sister Mary Grace (a lovely turn from Dianna Agron), for one, is open to embracing the changes; the Reverend Mother is most definitively against them, to the point where her pointed denial of the directives results in a visit from an archbishop (Denis O’Hare), who essentially tells her to get with the program or get out of it. If the often sadistic Reverend Mother is something of a villainous figure, the moment where she reveals the changes to the other nuns sheds a light on her extremely disciplined attitude. It’s not only the postulants and novitiates who struggle with their identity; for the Reverend Mother, the Vatican II’s diminishment of the authority of nuns hits hard – if a nun is relegated to the status of an ordinary believer, then what makes her any different, what makes her connection to God more special? In essence, who is she but a woman who wears a habit and even that distinctive identification has been made obligatory.

    As Cathleen, Margaret Qualley is a revelation. Ethereal in appearance, intense in her devotion, and increasingly conflicted in her conviction, the young actress is nothing less than riveting.

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