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
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
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