Manufacturing Catholic Guilt In “Novitiate”


It’s Roman Catholic week at the Oriental Theatre this week!

Say five Hail Marys.

Tomorrow I’ll discuss Greta Gerwig’s acclaimed “Lady Bird,” about a 17-year old girl at a Catholic high school.

novBut today’s topic is “Novitiate” an intimate and terrifying look at a cloistered community of nuns in 1964 and the young girls who want to become them. Its writer-director Maggie Betts, described as a “one time New York socialite and daughter of a Manhattan developer,” was named breakthrough director at the Sundance Film Festival, for this her first fictional narrative.

Anyone who went to parochial school during the 1960s will recognize the quiet menace of the fierce mother superior, played by Melissa Leo, who resisting the modernizations introduced by Vatican II with a sadistic relish.

The convent of this era is a place where being and feeling normal is a sin and doubt is a weakness. It practices “extreme penance,” like self-flagellation, and is a cauldron of repressed sexual tension. The film itself is an often unsubtle deconstruction of this time and these elements.

The 16-year-old girls come there with no life experience and various reasons for wanting to marry Jesus. Leo whips their shame and confusion into guilt with harrowing and psychologically extreme flair that has nothing to do with spirituality, as the soundtrack mumble-hums Gregorian chant.

The life of lonely and shy novitiate Sister Cathleen, played by Margaret Qualley of ‘The Leftovers,” is seen in flashbacks; she grew up in a broken family with an atheist mother, played by Julianne Nicholson, fell in love with God and found a sense of community in the church. Should she and her classmates decide, or be chosen, to stay in the order they will never leave the convent’s walls again.

Or so they think. Liberal changes introduced by Vatican II brought chaos and conflict to this insular community; 90,000 nuns ended up renouncing their vocations in its wake.

The towering Leo and young girls trembling in her wake are soldiers on this front line.


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  • Periscoper

    It was a crime to dump all those very sheltered, naive, middle aged and elderly women on the street with bad perms and polyester pant suits and tell them to find jobs on their own after they built the wealth of the church staffing hospitals, schools and nursing homes in exchange for dignified room, board, education and community

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