I have only seen two movies about nunhood in my entire life, both of them in the Michigan Theater. One was “The Little Hours” (starring Aubrey Plaza) and the other was Margaret Betts’s “Novitiate.” The two of them couldn’t be more different. A quick You Tube search will reveal why.
“Novitiate” is about nunhood– specifically, nunhood in 1960’s America, at the time of Vatican II, or the period of reform within the Catholic Church. Mother Superior, (played by Melissa Leo), is a menacing presence who looms over the women within the covenant, and her oscillations from benign and benevolent to frenzied and vindictive are played out very well. The girls are both extremely pious and devout and yet retain a girlish romanticism, explored in several scenes. The film maintains that the nun is a woman who is the bride of God, who dedicates her whole life and being to that sacrificial love. And this idea is seized upon by the girls and the other nuns within the covenant with a dedication that is tinged with borderline desperation, especially by Mother Superior. The Church is her entire life and identity, as it is for the other nuns, especially Kathleen; without God, what is there?
As a non-Catholic with no real background knowledge on what it means to be a nun, I was kind of concerned about how Catholicism and its practices would be portrayed in this film. Would nunhood be sensationalized and demonized? Would the “sexy nun” trope make an appearance? The trailer suggested a bit of a horror-based, trope with explicit acts of sin and punishment, but the actual film is more as a slow buildup of psychological pressure and tension. Although the film opens with Kathleen’s life, it pans out to encompass the worries and troubles concerning almost all of the sisters within the cohort; namely, the main concern for many Sisters is the fear that their sacrifices are being made in vain. The penances that were slightly exaggerated in the movie trailer are less dramatic; the more impactful punishments are the psychological ones.
While I enjoyed the film’s cast and plot, I do think that some characters were underdeveloped and others were suggested to be of importance, only to be cast away later. Many characters dipped in and out of the film in quick succession, which made it a little difficult to focus on the main ones. However, I thought that Kathleen was a very interesting character; some might argue that she is a “Mary Sue” character, too pious to be true; yet her steadfast commitment to her faith only makes her eventual demise all the more compelling and explicit.
Unfortunately, “Novitiate” is no longer playing at the Michigan Theater. However, if you ever get the chance to watch it, I would highly recommend.
(Picture credits: IMBD)