MovieMonday: Novitiate

“Novitiate” is a deeply flawed movie.  It is well-written and nicely filmed, and its actors are convincing.  I went to see it because it is about Catholicism and because it was filmed in Nashville, where I spend several months each year.

The location shots, unrecognizable to me, were still fine.  There were lots of women in black-and-white habits, which ratified my personal theme that there are more Catholic sisters and nuns (there’s a difference, BTW) in film than in real life.

The only problem here is that the film pretends to be a Catholic story.

The premise is this: Cathleen, a young woman, decides to join a cloistered nunnery, apparently in search of meaning in her life.  Her reasoning:  “I want an ideal love that I have to give everything to.”

You can see why.  The 17-year-old’s mother is a divorced, angry smoker with a randy sex life.  “I don’t believe in religion,” says the mother.  “Actually I think it’s kind of a waste of time.”

On the other hand, the girl has attended a Catholic school and been treated kindly by a teaching sister who seems to have been an inspiration.

So Cathleen goes to the Sisters of Blessed Rose monastery for postulancy and her novitiate, the steps that will prepare her (“train” her in the film’s lingo) for a life of prayer secluded entirely from secular society.

During the same period, Roman Catholic bishops are meeting at the Second Vatican Council in Rome; its purpose is to open the church to greater participation by lay persons and to greater respect for and cooperation with people of other religions.

The monastery’s Mother Superior hates the idea of church reform.  She has ruled her institution with an iron fist for many years, and she has no plan to change.

“When you hear me speak,” she says, “I am the voice of God speaking on behalf of his wishes.”  (This is not Catholic, by the way.  Catholics are admonished to practice humility.)

There is a lot of talk — too much of it — about each nun being a bride of Christ.  Instead of perfecting their souls, the nuns-in-training wonder constantly about whether they are worthy of His love.  (In Catholicism, the religious think less about themselves and their fears; they focus instead on the works and prayer that earn God’s love.)

There is a weekly Chapter of Force session in which the Mother Superior orders the new crop of postulants to kneel in a circle, then singles one out and directs her to “List every single fault that you’re aware of in yourself.”  Then the other postulants are told to pile on, naming other faults of the woman under attack.  After the abuse, the victim is ordered to reform by saying prayers.

Also at the monastery, uppity postulants are assigned to pray silently while crawling around the convent on hands and knees.

Ultimately, the nasty atmosphere of the place causes an older nun to act out in an extremely strange and vulgar way.  And a kind and generous young nun flees entirely.

Cathleen obeys but is stressed.  She withdraws into a tension that is manifested in fasting and then serious weight loss.  When her mother visits, she notices this and confronts the Mother Superior, who of course asserts her authority.

“Lady, I am not calling you Mother!” Cathleen’s mom shoots back, a line that drew the expected laughs and applause from the movie audience.

On and on it goes.

The movie is absorbed with the emotional and sensual needs of the young women; these are not the focus of any monastic experience, in any religion.  The film also categorizes the personal depredations young women suffered at the hands of a rigid, unfeeling, authoritarian and fictional Catholic institution.

Unfortunately, the film was made by non-religious people who know nothing about Catholicism — not its history, its teachings, its values, its sacraments, its gospels or its rituals.

I’m Catholic, born and raised.  I know nothing about cloistered nunneries, but I call foul.

A few points:

— In Catholicism, an unbaptized person would not have been admitted to a convent.  Postulants in 1962 would arrive knowing that the Mass was said in Latin and that the altar faced the crucifix and not the congregants.  The movie is unaware of these basic facts.

— In those days of large Catholic families, it was common for parents to hope that one child would have a “vocation,” effectively a calling to become a sister or brother or nun or priest.  The movie says families regarded this as a “sacrifice” when in fact it was a point of pride.

— Catholics did not and do not sponsor brutal group discussions of individuals’  “flaws.”  They confessed their “sins” privately with priests in the sacrament now known as reconciliation.  Nuns, including mother superiors, did not assign penances or offer forgiveness.  The practices in the movie have more in common with those of the nastier late-20th century New Age cults; these disciplines were adapted from those employed by totalitarian regimes to break down egos and enforce submission.


The Second Vatican Council did indeed change the experience of Catholicism.  The screenwriter/director of this film consulted an minor vein of memoir written by former cloistered nuns, whose previous purpose in life — prayer and prayer only — came to seem irrelevant in the larger scheme of a world of poverty and suffering.

In addition, the Vatican Council’s reforms came to fruition as a new wave of feminism offered more opportunities to ambitious women. The church lost many religious women — sisters and nuns — but retained many others whose influence only has grown.

At the same time, many priests left their vocations. And, among the secular, many people left their marriages.  It’s a mixed picture, and the effects are only now beginning to be understood.

As a Catholic, I can name experiences when I was disappointed by individual religious figures, but the rigor and values I learned in my childhood continue to inform my personal ethics and standards of honorable behavior.  I have no regrets.

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