In the 1960s, the Catholic Church underwent a period known as Vatican II, which would help modernize the institution long known for its often harsh, strict rules. The changes meant that priests no longer had to give Mass in Latin, and they could finally face their congregation during the ceremony. Catholics were told to respect other religions. Self-flagellation was now frowned upon. These changes allowed the Catholic Church to survive, showing many for the first time that the church could be somewhat flexible, even with its rules that had been around for centuries. This shift also lessened the importance of nuns in the church, leading to an exodus of close to 100,000 nuns from their position they thought would be for the rest of their lives.
With Novitiate, writer/director Maggie Betts shows the old and the new guard in the Catholic Church, the dedication to pre-Vatican II ideologies, and the struggle for post-Vatican II nuns to embrace the secular.
Cathleen (Margaret Qualley of The Leftovers) is a teenager who in love. She believes her calling is the extreme sacrifice of giving her entire life to her husband, God. Cathleen joins the Order of the Sisters of Blessed Rose, a stricter sect than most, as the film follows her year in the period known as novitiate, where prospective nuns live as nuns to see if they can dedicate their lives to a higher power.
The Blessed Rose’s Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo) has lived as a nun for forty years and tries her best to ignore the changes brought about the Vatican II. She believes that the church is perfect – as it always has been – and needn’t change a thing. For the Reverend Mother, her dedication to the ways only proves her love for God more, whereas those who embrace the change are the true problem.
While Cathleen’s story is the one Betts spends the most time with, it also has absolutely nothing to do with Vatican II, besides presenting her a potential way out if her devotion isn’t what she thought. Qualley and her teacher Sister Mary Grace (an exceptional Dianna Agron) make the young nun’s plight compelling, but their arc is more about their dedication than it is about their spirit. Often, the young group of nuns explain that their family has motivated their choices, or in Cathleen’s story, the tearing apart of her parents led her to the church. The Catholic Church always comes off more as an escape or a solution to their problems, rather than a passion for the Church and God.
On the other hand, Reverend Mother’s life is tied directly into the wishes of the Pope and Vatican, and yet far too little time is spent with her. Similarly to Cathleen, Reverend Mother’s story doesn’t seem based in love for God, but in stubborn patterns and an ever-constant vengeance for younger nuns that haven’t learned her ways. Not helping matters is that Leo plays Reverend Mother as big as possible, chewing scenery in her every scene. In the moments where Betts shows the power of the changes being made by Vatican II, and especially when Reverend Mother is belittled by her higher-up Archbishop McCarthy (Denis O’Hare), Reverend Mother becomes way too exaggerated.
Betts is a promising new talent whose assured directing isn’t quite matched yet by her writing, although there are sparks of greatness. This period in the Catholic Church is a fascinating time to uncover, but the lack of connection for Cathleen to Vatican II’s changes and Leo’s overacting make both plots not quite as strong as they could’ve been. Novitiate is a sign of great things to come from Betts, even if her debut doesn’t quite nail its dual storylines.