I was raised fundamentalist to believe that Catholics were not “real” Christians. Living in New York City, I saw no evidence to the contrary (until I came to Massachusetts), but I still was jealous that Protestants did not have something equivalent to a nun. I loved Jesus. I loved the color scheme: black, blue, gray and white. During high school, I went to a single sex school with no religious affiliation so I did not find that aspect of taking vows daunting. During my time, nuns lived and moved throughout the world allegedly committed to service to the Lord and the community. Unfortunately you had to be Catholic and follow a lot of arbitrary rules, which were not in the Bible, so I would not last a day and would be kicked out because of the bureaucracy. If I think something is right, I can’t hold my tongue, and if I think something is wrong, I can’t hold back my contempt. The hardest thing about being a Christian is the idea that “there is no condemnation in Jesus Christ” when all I want to do is condemn myself for falling short and others are happy to join in. So I thought it was better to be an outsider, not a joiner. I always got in trouble in groups in the secular world. Better to take the hint, stay separate and different since a community devoted to Jesus may be more forgiving, but more stringent than the secular world about the unspoken rules.
I’m 42 years old now and still different. It is as a lawyer, where I don’t fit certain molds , that I discovered the gauntlet depicted in Novitiate of older people trying to break younger people to fit into their mold to gain admittance into heaven. Instead of God behind those doors, it was financial security, a job, health care, the freedom to fully use your skills, talents, brain and body towards a fulfilling goal. Even when I failed and was cast out and shunned, I didn’t break. If God could save His people from the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Romans and more recently the Nazis, office politics with Vicki or Sam may feel difficult, but are not nearly as difficult. Stick to the law, but be defiantly perfect.
Whether you’re in North Korea, a fraternity, an office or a church, the more senior people will pretend to know the way, and the more junior people will believe them. The demands for self-criticism and flagellation will be met if it means we will make it—whatever it means to you. If you are lucky, you get a mentor, but if you are not, a hazer will find you. I have no idea what it was like to be a Catholic in the 1960s, but Novitiate depicts a world where you can simultaneously relate to the horrified, atheist mom and the true believer daughter while disagreeing with both.
I was disinterested in Novitiate until I noticed that a black woman, Margaret, aka Maggie Betts, was directing it, but Melissa Leo closed the deal. The Catholic Church has many black congregants, definitely more than there are black female directors in Hollywood so I was eager to give her a shot without concerns of bias in favor of or against the institution. Novitiate follows Kathleen’s unexpected journey of faith as a child to a teenager where she falls head over heels for Jesus at her parish church and later a Catholic school. As someone who briefly went to Catholic school, I can honestly say that this seems unlikely, but you do you, Kathleen. She is so in love that she decides to marry Jesus. Betts takes this aspect of Kathleen’s vocation seriously and never mocks it. While we are only used to seeing images of young girls dance under the stars around a fire in movies such as The Witch as a signal towards something ominous, Betts sees it as celebratory. I wish that I had paid as much attention to the other girls as Kathleen because the movie does give each of them screen time, and occasionally I had a hard time distinguishing them.
If Betts has a problem, it is with those who see that happiness and eagerness and want to beat it to death instead of nurture it. Reverend Mother, played by Leo, decides to take out her marriage/work frustrations on the girls. Leo depicts Mother as a woman who was probably always a stern taskmaster, but she basically just got served divorce papers and is freaking out. Vatican II demotes nuns into congregants, and they have no special relationship to Jesus. I adored the scene between Leo and Denis O’Hare, who will always be True Blood’s Russell Edgington to me, who plays the archbishop. Vatican II may be seen as a way to make the Catholic Church more approachable, but it is depicted as just another way that the Church takes away the voice of women. Considering earlier scenes when Mother chides the postulants for questioning her and admonishes them to equate her to God on Earth, her unwillingness to act accordingly with the Vatican is either shockingly hypocritical or quietly revolutionary. Unfortunately, instead of empathizing with the girls, she is irritated and bored by them. Do unto others is a foreign concept in that enclave.
It was frustrating that the novitiates had good questions and struggles that a productive leader would address and take seriously. My favorite was, “How do you know that you are talking to God and not yourself?“ It was distressing that rules could be broken to rebuke, not to comfort. Not everything is in the Bible, and Novitiate accurately represents our inclination for strictness so we can feel reassured that we are doing the right thing instead of embracing the messiness of following Jesus, looking at and caring for others like the Good Samaritan instead of keeping our head and eyes down. When I was at a turning point, I asked God what He wanted me to do, and I swear that he kind of giggled and said, “I trust you. Do what you want.” Noooooooo! We want to be told what to do, but that is not a relationship, not a marriage—at least, not a good one.
While it may be realistic, I got bored that the symbol of disaffection was always sexual. I do think that people need to get over the prurient fascination with nuns not having sex, especially since some of them may be doing so. There were rumors that if someone was gay, especially lesbians, the one safe place may be taking vows because there was less scrutiny, and it was an easy way to find others like you.
Will you be offended by Novitiate or does the film accurately depict what transpires behind the closed doors of the convent? Every time a character ridiculed the Church, the guy near me cheered loudly, and he only did that during the beginning of the movie. The film is an absorbing though flawed ensemble piece that is a strong first dramatic effort for Betts.
Sarah G. Vincent is an infovore who is originally from NYC and has lived in Massachusetts since 1993. She received an A.B., cum laude, in History and Film Studies from Harvard University in 1997 and received a J.D. from Harvard Law School in 2000, where she was also an editor and arts reporter at the Crimson/FM and worked at the Harvard Film Archives. After graduating from Harvard Law School, she published “The Cultural Context of the Shopping Mall: Tension Between The Patron’s Right of Access and the Owner’s Right to Exclude.” She is in a committed, exclusive spiritual relationship with the Triune God and for more information, directs readers to look at the Apostle’s Creed.