The portrait that movies give us of nuns has long been out of date, disconnected from modern reality. Even the depictions of harsh Catholic school disciplinarians and secretive baby traders (“Philomena”) belong to an earlier era of starched habits and rigid, dogmatic Catholicism, even if the patriarchal hierarchy of the church seems little changed.
“Novitiate,” the new drama about novice nuns struggling to pass muster and embrace their new lives in a Tennessee convent in the early 1960s, acknowledges that historical inaccuracy, as one Postulant (not yet a novice) admits she was drawn to this life after watching a movie.
“The Nun’s Story,” she confesses, made her want to become Audrey Hepburn.
The debut feature of writer-director Margaret Betts packs melodramatic temptation, inhumanly-rigid discipline, devotion, self-doubt and sadistic self-administered punishment into its somewhat slow-footed two hours. She shows us quite a bit of the life of a convent and the strictures of “nunnery” — the eyes-down way of walking, “custody of the eyes,” silences divided into “regular silence” and the long, post-vespers “Grand Silence,” which forces nuns to learn sign language to communicate at all.
The film, which wanders hither and yon in whose point of view it wants to depict, mainly follows the trials of a committed young woman (Margaret Qualley) new to the Sisters of the Blessed Rose convent. She devoutly believes and wants to surrender herself to a higher power. But all around her are doubts — her own, and everybody else’s.
More interesting is the backdrop to all this, the early ’60s “Vatican II” reforms, which yanked the Catholic Church into the late 19th, if not the mid-20th century. Its impact is hardest on the Mother Superior (Melissa Leo), a smiling martinet who takes out her frustrations on the “relaxing” of long-held standards (and the Vatican’s impending demotion of nuns within the Church) on the contingent of new would-be nuns under her charge — takes it out on them with a vengeance.
The future Sister Kathleen (Qualley) grew up in a broken home, with a hard-drinking absentee father and a loving but foul-mouthed, church-avoiding mom, played with a drawling ferocity by Julianne Nicholson of “Black Mass.”
A chance for a non-Catholic girl to go to Catholic school exposes Kathleen to the Church and sympathetic nuns as teachers. Their indoctrination takes, as she grows up to defy her mother and take the vows. “I’m in love,” she declares. With Jesus.
“Jesus Christ,” her mother complains. “Where did I go wrong?”
Betts sets us up for a convent war of wills story, with 18 of fresh young faces under the thumb of the Mother Superior, who keeps news of Vatican II from others in their cloistered world. But the Postulants are susceptible to the more open-minded views and temptations of Sister Mary Grace, played with doubt, intelligence and compassion by Dianna Agron of “Glee.”
But promising scenes where “our pope has gotten it into himself to be some sort of reformer” might come up for debate are brought up short by “not that it’s your place to question anything.” And this war of wills/battle for the souls of the new girls dynamic is abandoned.
Betts loses herself in depicting the girls who survive the arbitrary and cruel (“Give yourself the discipline” means self-flagellation with a knotted whip) winnowing of their ranks, the ceremony where the survivors symbolically “marry” Jesus, giving their lives to this life. And there’s the titillation that spins from the temptation — young women, denied any contact with the outside world or the simple, physical touch of another person — giving in to that need for human, loving contact.
Leo wonderfully captures the coiled-fury that her Mother Superior feels that a council of old men has banished “all that old medieval stuff” from her world, when those traditions were, she thinks, the only bulwark against the temptation her nuns are falling under. And the Oscar winner can break your heart as she relates this Vatican II “tolerance” — the bishops were breaking up their “marriages” after all — to her charges.
But her cruelty and dogmatic intolerance might make you think of others who reject “Vatican II” Catholicism — Mel Gibson’s splinter group dad, and Mel himself, for instance.
“Novitiate” is very much a mixed-bag of a movie, condemned by the fanatic at The Catholic Legion of Decency, but too revealing and realistic to discard outright, too heartfelt to fail to move, at times.
If nothing else, a film that explains this Mother Superior rather than demonizes her, that displays the rituals and routines of a convent (we never actually see the nuns doing the work to keep the place going) has more value than “The Nun’s Story” or “The Singing Nun” or “The Sound of Music” or “The Flying Nun” or “Sister Act.” Those perpetuate a myth well-worth discarding.
MPAA Rating: R for language, some sexuality and nudity
Cast: Margaret Qualley, Dianna Agron, Melissa Leo, Julianne Nicholson
Credits: Written and directed by Margaret Betts. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
Running time: 2:03