And Then There Were Nun: Betts’ Novel Approach to the Nunnery
Director Maggie Betts revisits a fascinating transitional period in the Catholic church with her debut, Novitiate, which snagged her a Special Jury Prize as Breakthrough Director following its premiere at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Revisiting the early 1960s, when Vatican II’s reign caused a significant revisionist upset by divorcing itself from the troubling archaic zealotry the church was no longer able to defend in increasingly enlightened climes, Betts’ achievement resembles the melodramatic textures of the iconic Audrey Hepburn vehicle A Nun’s Story (which gets a textual reference) mixed with a (slight) dash of Madchen in Uniform sexual repression.
A formidable supporting cast rallies around a central figure portrayed by Margaret Qualley (daughter of Andie MacDowell) as the titular bride of Christ in training, a doe-eyed gamine who has the looks (but not the hysterical chops) to rival the presence of a young Isabelle Adjani. Despite the sometimes disappointingly sterile aesthetic, considering a period which serves as a hotbed host for multiple levels of dysfunction and stunning abuses of power, Betts does a fine job of avoiding religious proselytizing which usually accompanies representations of faith. But neither does she address its continual hold on a culture determined to overlook the nonsensical adherence to traditions despite the violence, hatred, and ignorance continually nurtured in such frameworks. Instead, it’s a sobering, sometimes troubling sideways glance at women in search of meaning and purpose in a patriarchal infrastructure allowing for few avenues of enlightenment or fulfillment.
Bored and bitterly cynical housewife Nora Harris (Julianne Nicholson) introduces her seven-year-old daughter Cathleen to the notion of religion by allowing a visit to the Catholic church, an institution she otherwise observes with contempt. Nursing a broken marriage, the unhappiness created at home drives Cathleen full-tilt into the comforting arms of Jesus, and she claims to feel the presence of thy savior at the age of 12. Humoring her daughter, Nora allows for Cathleen’s obsession to grow, until she realizes with dismay that Cathleen, now a young adult (Margaret Qualley), wishes to become a nun. Entering a Catholic convent as a postulant under the imperious dictatorship of an iron-willed Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo), Cathleen bonds and consorts with her peers, all who suffer from a bit of disillusionment and sexual repression. However, under the new rule of the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church has been charged with reforming itself into a new, modern, family friendly image—changes which the Reverend Mother wishes to avoid introducing to her flock.
By far, the most powerful presence bleeding all over Novitiate is a commanding performance from Melissa Leo as the unyielding and brutally cold Mother Superior. Historically, there were scant few positions where women could wield such power over others within a heteronormative paradigm—a counterpoint perhaps being a brothel Madame, another female taking on masculine attributes yet forced to yield to the will of the male authorities in charge. This is perfectly exemplified in a surprise visit from Denis O’Hare as an Archbishop arriving to remind the Reverend Mother of her limited capabilities in refusing Vatican II’s new regulations. Much of Leo’s other sequences could have easily veered into the campy realm of nunsploitation, the cruel Mother Superior outflanking the kindlier instructors to weed out those amateurish waifs unable to withstand the requisite abuse required to pay proper penance to a fair yet pitiless Lord and Master.
If Betts’ screenplay paints an apt portrait of Sister Cathleen’s psychological posturing which led her to seek out the comfort and stability of the church, particularly as a direct juxtaposition to her mother’s (a solid and sympathetic Julianne Nicholson) troubled relationship with her wayward father, the young woman’s storyline gets lost amongst parallel strands afforded her peers.
Starvation, lesbianism, flagellation—all cornerstones of the cinematic nun canon are on display at some point in Novitiate, yet their aftershocks lack a certain oomph. Missing the sexual hysteria of Mexican remake Muchachas in Uniform (1951), or the Powell and Pressburger classic Black Narcissus (1947), and avoiding plenty of vile abuses as those brought against the captive young wards of 2002’s The Magdalene Sisters (even Nicloux’s remake of The Nun presents as seedier than this) lends Betts’ film a sometimes-neutered tone, perhaps to build sympathy for the plight of the nuns and the limited capacity Vatican II’s revisions afforded them. Leo and Nicholson are assigned the zestiest bits as adult women of opposing viewpoints, while the former is allowed a potent monologue almost bordering on heartbreaking—except even the most well-rounded characters lack what could potentially be classified as a soul.