“What do you seek? What do you desire?” a young woman named Cathleen is asked as she prepares to take religious vows. Even though the questions are part of a centuries-old ritual, “Novitiate,” written and directed by Maggie Betts, takes their content seriously and understands that they are not synonymous.
What Sister Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) and her fellow novices aspire to become does not always align with what they want in their hearts. Though they feel themselves called to a life of sacrifice, seclusion and austerity, that vocation often expresses itself with a passion that can be unsettling. It is not just about loving God, but about being in love with him.
Cathleen Harris arrives at the Sisters of Blessed Rose monastery in 1964, when she is 17. Even though the Vatican II reforms initiated by Pope John XXIII are bringing radical changes to the Roman Catholic Church, they have yet to reach the quiet hillside where the sisters live, almost entirely cut off from the rest of the world.
Cathleen, educated in a Catholic girls school in Tennessee, is leaving a family situation sketched in a few baldly over-dramatized scenes. Her tomcatting father (Chris Zylka) comes home drunk and angry and then leaves altogether. Cathleen’s mother, Nora (Julianne Nicholson), an occasional churchgoer, smokes and swears and sleeps around and is utterly mystified by the intensity of her daughter’s faith.
“Novitiate” veers between subtlety and its opposite, which is personified mainly by Melissa Leo’s abbess. An autocrat with a sadistic streak, the reverend mother enforces harsh discipline and seems to enjoy humiliating her young charges. She brooks no dissent and finds herself in conflict both with an independent-minded underling (Dianna Agron) and the modernizing archbishop (Denis O’Hare).
The movie is on surer, more interesting ground when it explores Cathleen’s inner life, her daily routines and the camaraderie and rivalry that emerge among the novices. Discouraged from forming close friendships that might distract from their primary devotion, the young women, mostly still teenagers, behave in some of the usual ways for girls of their age. They gossip and share confidences and break rules carelessly or brazenly, all the while grappling, as most adolescents do, with deep and murky questions of identity.
Their reasons for joining the order are as various as their temperaments. One cites Audrey Hepburn in “The Nun’s Story” as a primary inspiration. “Novitiate” avoids both the laundered piety of that movie and the sensationalism that hovers around the subject of women and religion. At least since the 18th century, the depiction of nuns and convents in literature has often tended toward the Gothic or the pornographic, fed by anticlerical and anti-Catholic ideology as well as by fantasies about female sexuality.
There is certainly cruelty in “Novitiate,” and lust as well. In her desk drawer the reverend mother keeps a small whip made of knotted rope, called “the discipline,” that the sisters may borrow to use on themselves. Cathleen’s spiritual hunger — her need to be loved and worthy of love, her longing for comfort as well as sacrifice — brings its share of anguish, shame and confusion. Qualley’s performance, and those of some of the supporting cast, notably Morgan Saylor and Rebecca Dayan, convey the difficulties these women face.
Betts refrains from easy, uplifting answers and facile condemnations of organized religion. Aided by Kat Westergaard’s warm, restrained cinematography, she takes the viewer close to an understanding of Cathleen’s evolving sense of her relationship with God.