By Christopher Sharrett.
I have always been curious about the lives of nuns, mainly because I suffered under their twisted physical and psychological ministrations for eight years of parochial grammar school in the Fifties. The topic of a nun’s origins are dealt with in a not particularly distinguished film entitled Novitiate by Maggie Betts; the terrain is explored with far more intelligence and wit by Bunuel in any number of his works that play off of Catholic ideology, but with no pretense toward the clinical as is affected here, although not terribly. Novitiate has some useful remarks about the pathology (there is no other word) of the convent and the attraction it holds (or held – many orders of nuns have vanished in the last forty years) for young women.
The film takes us into the life of Cathleen Harris (Margaret Qualley), first observed during her childhood in the South. In one scene, she is seated at the kitchen table, having dinner with her mother Nora (the very interesting Julianne Nicholson) when the drunken husband/father comes home; a screaming match soon ensues, suggesting that at least one model of explanation for a woman entering the convent is the need to escape the nuclear family, with its overbearing male and the promise of marital misery. Nora, a free-thinker, takes Cathleen to various churches as a way of educating her child – a possibly fatal mistake. Cathleen says she likes the “peaceful” atmosphere of churches, seeing a church as a place of solace contrasting with the hell that is domestic life, although Cathleen never actually converts to Catholicism, even when she enters the convent. There are other models of explanation in the film for a young woman’s adopting the nun’s veil, like dire poverty, or being forced to go into the convent since devout parents saw farming out a child as the best way to get right with the Lord. Indeed, there was once a practice (I have no way of measuring it beyond the many stories I heard in my youth) of Catholic families of giving up a daughter (usually the ugliest, with few marital prospects) as a mean of gaining “indulgences” with the church, free passes into heaven that were once actually sold like tickets by the ecclesiastical authorities.
Some of these types are encountered by Cathleen as she joins the Sisters of the Rose, an order of sequestered nuns who reside in a Romanesque abbey, forbidden even to speak except during hours sanctioned by the Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo), for me a recognizable archetype, a psychopath who speaks in low, measured tones, always with a tiny smile, as if she gives a whit about you as a human being. Reverend Mother tolerates not the smallest transgression, making nuns crawl around the building on their hands and knees, or stand in a circle of their companion novices, forced to admit to “faults” until they are reduced to tears. The kind-voiced Reverend Mother can break character, dropping her social mask to reveal a screaming, asocial harridan with contempt for the world around her, especially for anything with a hint of the sexual; her insistence on “love” is tied to a demand for “sacrifice” (after all, a bleeding man nailed to a piece of wood validates the worldview). The sacrifice involves absolute alienation, to a point that Cathleen finally embraces another young nun (who was transferred from another convent, the suggestion being for lesbian desires) out of yearning to be “comforted,” in other words, to satisfy basic human needs in the gloomy, threatening building and its soul-swallowing restraints.
The story takes place mainly during the years 1962-65, the time of Vatican II, a council called by Pope John XXIII, a liberal pope who has been all but erased from church history to make room for the deification of John Paul II, a reactionary who attempted to reverse the liberalizing policies of Vatican II. Vatican II did absolutely nothing at the level of church dogma, and continued to regard women as non-beings in the church hierarchy, prevented from becoming priests, and of course faced with the usual proscriptions regarding sex and reproductive rights.
This point needs an aside. Catholic priests have to take vows of obedience and chastity (we know how this has played out, since the priesthood has been a pedophile haven for decades), but not poverty. Priests can acquire wealth, sometimes great wealth if they are far up the chain of command, while nuns can own almost nothing – except power, inflicted on the most vulnerable. The church has used nuns as slave labor, an issue requiring our sympathy, and a point that is visible in the outrage displayed in several scenes of Novitiate.
Reverend Mother is visited by a smiling archbishop (Denis O’Hare), a man of good humor who enjoys tea in expensive cups. His cheerful comportment doesn’t conceal a basic point – this is a person of real power, who could shut down Reverend Mother’s enterprise with the snap of his fingers. The archbishop knows that Reverend Mother has failed to follow through on – or even mention to her tormented nuns – directives issued from the Vatican, including regulations making nuns of no more significance than any lay Catholic; they are told to get rid of all their strangling “habits.” Vatican II was a PR move that could be termed too little, too late, as the church’s image worldwide began to disintegrate, picking up speed in the 80s-90s with the international pedophile scandals. But in the 60s many reactionary Catholics, like Reverend Mother, despised some of the Vatican II changes, like the Mass being said in native languages rather than Latin, the priest now facing the congregation instead of offering it his back.
The degree of Reverend Mother’s repression is displayed at some key moments, like Nora trying to retrieve her daughter from Mother’s clutches. Nora asks the old woman is she “ever had children.” Mother replies with “No, and now neither do you.” Several things are going on here: Mother sees the young novices (hence “novitiate”) as her personal slaves, onto whom she can vent, torturing the young women for the punishments meted out to her by the church, and by life. The sexual dimension here is overwhelming in its lunacy and repugnance. Nuns are “brides of Christ.” When novices take their “vows” they actually wear bridal gowns, a bishop placing the traditional wedding ring on the left hand. This insanity is underscored when the Reverend Mother, totally bereaved by her forced acquiescence to the archbishop, goes into the convent chapel, lying spread-eagled at the base of the altar. She begs Jesus for assistance, calling him “my darling husband.” Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse together could offer little solace, so emotionally deformed is the Reverend Mother, who thought she had a place within the church’s absolute hierarchy. We might note that during the visit of the omniscient archbishop, there is no mention of Reverend Mother’s practices – they are standard, accepted, and of no particular moment. His mission is to emphasize church authority.
Eventually Cathleen understands what she has done to herself. There is information before the end credits informing us that 90,000 women left the convent since the Vatican II years. This strikes me as rather small, since entire orders of nuns, who once had a major role running the schools of Catholic parishes and performing menial chores, have simply vanished. From my conversations with women who once lived in a convent, the reasons are more complicated than Vatican II. Many simply saw their steady disempowerment as the males of the clergy prospered and became more and more reactionary in the Reagan-Thatcher-Kohl-John Paul II epoch, ostensibly aimed at “destroying communism” (all nonsense, since the basic strategy of the capitalist West against the Soviet Union, since the postwar days of whiz kid George Kennan, was to bankrupt the Soviet state, and to rain hellfire on any nation embracing socialism).
Novitiate isn’t, thankfully, The Nun’s Story, which, although showing a dissatisfied Audrey Hepburn walking away from the convent after many wasted years, still manages to give nuns a certain grace and even grandeur – they are well-meaning rather than eternally tormented. (My preferred nun movie is Black Narcissus, where Powell and Pressburger allow sexual repression to boil over, with one nun turning into something like a sex-crazed vampire from Hammer films.) Novitiate is often predictable, especially in its conception of Reverend Mother, yet there are some useful observations. The church, since Constantine, has been the underpinning of every authoritarian Western regime in history – the Holy Roman Empire is a name that almost caricatures the problem in its hyperbole and ostentation. One can easily conjure images of European fascism, and any authoritarian organization demanding total obedience, after contemplating the quotidian-seeming activity of the Catholic Church and its minions. For the uninformed, Novitiate offers instruction that clings close to the real world and its terrible recent history.
Christopher Sharrett has taught film studies for many years at Seton Hall University. He is a Contributing Editor for Film International.