Novitiate movie poster

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nunnery? Full Metal Habit? Writer-director Margaret Betts takes a striking fact — the Catholic Church in America experienced a mass exodus of its women religious in the years following the Second Vatican Council — and uses it to craft a hysterical piece of fiction, shot through with the “exaggerated or uncontrollable emotion or excitement” that the adjective implies. Margaret Qualley stars as Sister Cathleen, a young woman so unhappy with her mother’s romantic choices that she resolves to marry someone less fallible: God. And it is God — the abstract, authoritative entity — who is incessantly referenced here, even though nuns are traditionally known as Brides of Christ. Bringing merciful, loving Jesus into the picture would no doubt complicate matters for the unmerciful, unloving Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo). Her countenance alternates between a stony smile and a twisted snarl, except for the moments when the changes wrought by Vatican II threaten to loosen her iron grip over her young charges. Then she simply goes to pieces. We learn a lot about the fervid emotions of the religious hopefuls and the harsher elements of religious discipline — and given Sister Cathleen’s reasons for signing on, her experience makes some sense — but precious little about what their conventual life entails, how it will be changed by the Council, or why thousands of women eventually broke their vows and shed their habits. Was it really over broken hearts? 2017.

Matthew Lickona

This movie is not currently in theaters.


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