Novitiate

 

            Vatican II, concluded in 1964, was an epochal event in Roman Catholic practice.  The most obvious paradigm shift was the attempt to make the Mass more accessible to the lay people, so instead of the Latin that had been used for centuries, priests were directed to speak in the language of the congregants.  And to face them, now, instead of the altar, with his back to them.  Oh, and other denominations were now not necessarily to be regarded as heretical or schismatic, but reflecting an equally valid witness.

            Well, some radical changes took root better than others.  There was also a tremendous backlash among traditional Catholics who yearned for the ways they grew up with, and nowhere was that more evident than among the nuns, who were basically told that they'd been operating under an erroneous premise all these centuries.  Declaring themselves “brides of Christ” didn't make them any holier than anybody else, or spiritually superior, either.  More than 90,000 nuns left the American convents in the late 1960's, and Catholic schools were never quite the same after that, either.

            But the hardest hit by the eccliastical “reform” were the cloistered nuns, who vowed to dedicate their entire lives to poverty, chastity, and obedience.  Not only did they pray continually, they also observed much silence during their daily routines.  And their penances even included vestigial medieval self-flagellation.  Literally whipping themselves into spiritual shape.

            Melissa Leo steals this show as the Reverend Mother, who's become a cruel and despotic taskmistress, with the worst kind of religious zeal:  unable to distinguish her own opinions from God's will.  She steadfastly resists all these changes, even though they are ordered by the archbishop.  She sees it as an invalidation of all the costly vows she has kept for 40 years.  And in a sense, she's right.

            What we are seeing here is the last vestige of the “old ways” in this monastic throwback community.  Postulants were told not to question anything.  They were to walk with their eyes cast downward, and speak only when spoken to.  They were to keep silence during meals, and after 9 p.m.  If they could endure six months of this cultural and social deprivation, they could then become novitiates, which was even stricter and longer.

            Some of the young “sisters” entered the convent to get away from bad family dynamics, among them Sister Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), who soon learns a more agonizing kind of lack of affection.  Some are asked to leave because they become too close to each other.  Others are summarily dismissed for questioning either their vocation or the validity of the Reverend Mother's strict taboos.  And the viewers, if they happen to profess any religion, will find themselves questioning some cherished assumptions.  And the viewers who don't profess any religion will question the rationality of the deeply religious.

            Released in the month after the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, this movie invites the viewer into the kind of spiritual abuses that the Reformers were trying to address.  Of course, it wasn't long before the Reformation itself needed re-forming.  But that's for another movie.

 

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association