In either a film or a novel, the challenge of capturing the past is to re-create, and allow us to inhabit, outlooks, practices, and passions that have evaporated—that strike us now as benighted or strange. In that strangeness we measure the reality of the human being in circumstances importantly different from our own. The challenge looms especially large for any director hoping to convey to an American audience the lives of cloistered nuns, those “brides of Christ,” as they were lived half a century ago.
Novitiate announces its intention in the opening voice-over, in which a teenaged girl, Cathleen, confesses with whispered urgency, “You are all I could ever want.” She is addressing no less than God himself. Months later, as she takes the vows at the Sisters of the Blessed Rose monastery, she will be asked the ritual questions: “What do you seek? What do you desire?” Writer-director Margaret Betts firmly places the emphasis on that desire, reminding us that faith as experienced by those who pledged their lives to Christ and the church often was driven by passion and the wish for spiritual intimacy. “Beneath it all, we were women in love,” Cathleen comments, from a point of uncertain retrospect.
The setting is 1964, and Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) is seventeen. Growing up in rural Tennessee, abandoned by her carousing father and raised by an irreligious, profane, smoking-and-drinking mom (Julianne Nicholson), she wins a scholarship to a parochial school, where her shy intensity and meditative bent draw the attention of a quietly charismatic nun. Soon, to the baffled dismay of her mother, Cathleen decides to hie herself to the abbey and devote her life to God.
Novitiate seeks to explore the contrast between the daily severity of a life under vows and the intensity of the passion that powers it. The life is one of extreme enclosure—the abbess (Melissa Leo) boasts to the new postulants that she hasn’t left the grounds in forty years. The would-be sisters learn a rigidly structured system designed to foster spirituality through meditation and submission. To this end they receive training in such practices as “custody of the eyes”; prayer recitations and singing of canticles; proper postures for walking; the strict observation of Grand Silence, complete with sign language; and extreme penitential practices such as self-flagellation.
It is a world almost entirely without men; the priest who says Mass—his back turned to the faithful—is little more than a distant mumble. Betts gives us a few scenes in which Cathleen and her friends—teenagers, after all—engage in coltish fun; one fellow postulant gigglingly reveals that she decided to become a nun after watching Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story. But mostly what we observe is the dour inculcation of solemnity. It is a life in which stray thoughts are enemies to be shunned, and the line between the legitimate ecclesiastical power that traces to God and the power that is a mere emanation of someone’s personal lust for authority gets routinely blurred. “Put down your hand, Sister,” snarls the Reverend Mother, when one of her new charges dares to ask for a small clarification. “Postulants don’t ask questions.”