Novitiate – From Canon to Realization

The novitiate, through which life in an institute is begun, is arranged so that the novices better understand their divine vocation, and indeed one which is proper to the institute, experience the manner of living of the institute, and form their mind and heart in its spirit, and so that their intention and suitability are tested.

—Canon Law 646

Novitate, follows young Sister Cathleen as she goes from childhood to becoming a prostate and eventually a novice. Set during the 1960s, we find the nuns at odds with the Church over the resolutions found by Vatican II, the first reviewal of canon law after 100 years. The changes made to cannon law are aimed at ensuring the longevity of the Church and creating a progressive and more attractive environment. We come to find though that many of these changes directly affect the nuns, largely disavowing their importance in the eyes of the Lord, eventually causing a mass exodus of 90,000 nuns from their convents.

Novitate is intense, emotional, and stirring both sexually and religiously. It causes you to question personally held beliefs, not just beliefs held by the Catholic faith. Tackling the incredibly complex ideas of intimacy, sexuality, faith, religion, and human need, Novitate is quite literally a reflection of not only a devout Catholic experience, but the experience of self doubt that all teenage individuals face.

Highlighting the intense process of becoming a nun, it is clear that the process is extreme in both physical and mental sacrifice. At the young age of 16-18, the group of girls we follow have little to know understanding of the world let alone what it means to make a commitment meant to last a lifetime.

A running trope, though not as prevalent as the aforementioned topics, is the role of women within the Church. It becomes clear that regardless of their dedication, the women of the church are still regarded as secondary to the men who run the Church.

Overall, the film is absolutely worth seeing, though the reason for its lack of mainstream acknowledge is apparent. Films regarding the Catholic Church are rarely positive, and this film follows that trope. While a bit slow at times, the film picks up around the second act with Sister Cathleen’s questioning of her own place within the Church. The film depicts a well rounded view of those within the Church, from the devote to those who perpetually question. The lives of the characters depicted are largely unexplained, but the resolution of the film is left for the viewer to decide. The film itself is directed and written by Margaret Betts who won, by Special Jury Prize under U.S. Dramatic, the award for Breakthrough Director at Sundance 2017. Cast includes Margaret Qualley as Sister Cathleen, Liana Liberato as Sister Emily, Julianne Nicholson as Nora Harris, and Melissa Leo as the Reverend Mother.

For reference, to novitate is to participate in a process within the Catholic church in which women who are in the process of committing themselves to becoming nuns, or rather in the phraseology of the movie dauning the same name, getting themselves ready to marry Jesus Christ.