November 29, 2017

Novitiate: Aspiring Nun Struggles With Vows in Coming-of-Age Drama

Cathleen Harris (Margaret Qualley) was raised in rural Tennessee in the 1950s and at an early age became interested in a religious life. That fixation was disconcerting to Nora, her single mother (Julianne Nicholson), who openly and forcefully declared her atheism.

Nora blamed the Catholic school Cathleen attended for encouraging her daughter’s obsessive interest in religion. By the time she was a teenager, Cathleen’s faith had grown so strong that she wanted to become a nun. And, over her mother’s objections, she entered a convent when she was 15.

She took the name Sister Cathleen and dropped her surname, however, there were still years of training ahead of her before she would be allowed to take her final vows. To achieve this, she had to prove herself worthy during her postulance, the probationary period that tested a novice’s commitment to silence, poverty, obedience, and chastity.

Cathleen’s class at the convent was comprised of several equally pious teenagers who also desired to live ascetic lives as “wives of Christ.” They were all being trained by the convent’s Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo), whose job was to weed out those young women who were uncertain about whether or not they wanted to be nuns.

That is the point of departure of Novitiate, a drama written and directed by Margaret Betts (The Carrier). The compelling character portrait plumbs the depths of Cathleen’s soul as she struggles to decide whether or not she’s meant to enter the order.

The picture takes place in the mid-1960s, just after Pope John XXIII had issued a series of 16 historic proclamations including one that lowered the standing of nuns to that of lay believers.

Stripped of their status, 90,000 nuns renounced their vows and returned to private life. The movie explores how this change in status effected someone like Cathleen who was just embarking on the path to becoming a nun.

Novitiate explores the internal angst of a young teenage woman who is struggling to decide whether or not she’s meant to be a nun.

Very Good (***). Rated R for profanity, sexuality, and nudity. Running time: 123 minutes. Production Studio: Maven Pictures/Novitiate Productions. Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics.