One of the sexiest movies of the year is about Catholic Church bureaucracy

Mid ’60s modernization council Vatican II is the focus of Novitiate, the first feature by director Margaret Betts.

Novitiate Margaret Qualley Margaret Betts
Margaret Qualley in Novitiate, written and directed by Margaret Betts


Who could imagine that one of the sexiest movies of the year could be about a bureaucratic change-over in the Catholic Church? Novitiate, the first feature-length fiction film from writer-director Margaret Betts, depicts the introduction of Vatican II, the landmark modernization council that marked the largest shift within church practices in modern times. Mostly set in 1964, the film explores this change-over through the eyes of Sister Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), an aspiring sister in a cloistered order of nuns (meaning all members of the sisterhood never leave the gates of their abbey) with very limited contact with the outside world.

Rather than frame Novitiate around an obscure set of beliefs, Betts frames the film as a love story. From the beginning, the adolescent Cathleen connects with Jesus as representing a perfect, “ideal love.” A shy and imaginative young girl from a broken home, she finds the structure of her Catholic high school helps bring her life meaning and direction. Her mother, Nora, played by Julianne Nicholson, is non-religious and does not quite understand her teenage daughter’s quickening devotion to Jesus and the Church. They clash, but Nora, an ever-supporting mother, affords her daughter the autonomy she clearly lacks, allowing her to join a strict order of nuns.

The film is centered on the long and arduous process of becoming a nun, taking place over several years. One of roughly a dozen aspiring sisters, Cathleen stands out as both an exceptional student and a devoted follower of Christ. Yet, as her journey progresses, moral and spiritual conflicts rise from shifting structures of power and the painful realities of spiritual servitude.

If the film has a villain, it is the Mother Superior portrayed in large, broad strokes by Melissa Leo. As the Reverend Mother, Leo balances on a razor’s edge of intense spiritual doubt and incredible fear over the impending changes associated with Vatican II. As a result of this looming change, she becomes increasingly erratic, enforcing rules with an almost ecstatic brutality bordering on outright abuse.

Novitiate Melissa Leo Margaret Betts
Melissa Leo in Novitiate

This is clearly laid out on the page, but Leo’s performance takes the easy way out as she screams out her hypocritical accusations and whispers her insidious takedowns as she wears down these young women to palid weeping ghosts. Her place in the film being so integral, she plays things a little too big in a film where everyone else keeps things so tight and contained. The much dreamier and aloof Margaret Qualley as Cathleen is by far the acting standout in Novitiate, anchoring its tense progression from high school fantasy to harsh reality.

Tension of all kind ripples through the cavernous halls of this abbey, and even for those unfamiliar with the strange peculiarities of Catholicism, the film has a way of drawing out how essential and ultimate everything is within the strict confines of a religious order. All feeling is presented as life and death and in some ways, it is. The film’s treatment of sexuality borders on nunsploitation, but Betts avoids common pitfalls of the genre by structuring desire as something as intimate and self-effacing as devotion itself.

The camera does not linger on the female bodies like a lecherous old man but unveils the character’s uncomfortable relationship with their physicality. As the young women continue their pursuit towards becoming nuns, they will no longer be able to engage in any kind of physical contact with anyone — a task that is not merely difficult, but agonizing in its total alienation from the mortal world. The sex and desire within the film feels almost painfully urgent rather than gratuitous and lingers far beyond the more explicit sequences.

Beyond the issue of Melissa Leo’s too-much performance, Novitiate does suffer from some other flaws. It has a tendency to veer too much into Lifetime melodrama, particularly through its use of an often out-of-place, swelling score. The film achieves such incredible levels of tension without it that these moments that pop up every 20 minutes or so undo much of the work put forth previously. Yet, these elements are easy to forgive within the wider scope of the film, which has a way of holding on and not letting go.

Novitiate doesn’t take a hard opinion on Vatican II, which was a groundbreaking move towards modernization, but certainly exposes how it might have had enormous detrimental qualities to religious orders in particular — a more or less untold consequence of moving away from the Church’s more medieval practices.

Novitiate is a largely appealing drama that showcases a lot of promise for Betts. The film will likely appeal to Catholics (or those a particular interest in ideas of faith) more than the general population, if only because it does rely on a certain amount of base knowledge as to the practices and role of the Vatican within the lives of the direction of the Church. Nonetheless, the film is also broadly appealing as a portrait of youthful desire and the obsessiveness of devotion. ■

Novitiate opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Nov 10. Watch the trailer below.

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Novitiate starring Margaret Qualley, written and directed by Margaret Betts