The new fictitious film, "Novitiate," set in the
early 1960's, about a young woman entering a strict monastic order of nuns
is...an unholy mess. It's as if someone made a film about football players to
show us that football players are not really about football at all.
I don't believe this film is coming from a malicious place,
just a clueless and lazy place. (Even the music starts off slothfully repeating
the same sweet piano trill no matter what the mood.) The filmmaker, Maggie
Betts, is not Catholic, but you don't have to be Catholic to make a Catholic
film. Just do your homework. I'm sure Betts did some minimal research (at the
TIFF--Toronto International Film Festival--she stated that she never even met a
nun, just read some books about them, especially nuns who had left the convent)--but
she could have had someone do some fact checking: the micro- and
macro-inaccuracies are legion. Betts did have a former nun as an advisor, but
it seems this woman was more intent on how nuns ate and walked than on basic
Catholic doctrine and vocabulary.
IT'S ALL ABOUT DESIRE
But what of the heart of the film? Did the filmmaker get
that right? Not really, except that life, all life, is about desire. According
to interviews with the writer-director and actresses, what they were most
impressed with was the fact of the "literal," "passionate"
love/romantic/marriage relationship Sisters have with God--however, it's
portrayed in a really outre,
unbalanced way. (So, in regard to the filmmaker, maybe there is something to that dictum that
everyone always hears in film school:
"write what you know"--meaning the emotional territory/landscape you
are familiar with, no matter the setting. Betts does not seem to be familiar with this emotional territory, i.e, human-divine/divine-human love.)
"Novitiate" is all about desire, but at a certain point you realize "desire" lacks transcendence here. It's just about what I "feel," what makes me comfortable, what I like. It's simply about following my bliss of the moment. There is zero objectivity. Desire is extremely horizontal and self-absorbed (and not all the nuns are young, either, so it's not that "oh, they're just young"). There's nothing about sacrificial service to others, growth in virtue, etc., beyond a bunch of vapid ascetical practices.
The few scenes of sexuality and nudity had a certain
gratuitousness to them, but I suspect this is because for the filmmaker (and
countless others), there is nothing more "contrast-y" than (ooooh!) nuns
and sex, and also, for a non-religious person, there's often nothing higher in
life, nothing more aspirational than expressions of physical affection and/or
sensuality. But more about that later.
NUNS IN MOVIES
Can a non-Catholic make a film about nuns? Sure. We're fair
game. All's fair in love and war. Hollywood often gets nuns and other Catholic
stuff "right," (the good, the bad and the ugly): "Dead Man Walking," "Doubt," "Song of
Bernadette," "Spotlight," "Of Gods and Men,"
"Tree of Life," "Ida," "The Innocents,"
I did a paper for my Masters in Media Literacy Education called, "The
Changing Image of Priests and Nuns in Film," and I maintained that
Hollywood is watching us and often just reflecting us back to ourselves (e.g., "Mass Appeal," "Where Angels
Go, Trouble Follows," "Change of Habit.")
Even when poetic
license and flights of fanciful imagination are employed in a film (as they
should be in creative storytelling!), a certain integrity to the subject (any
subject) can always be maintained that doesn't totally misconstrue and
mythologize history. With regard to portrayals of priests, here are some fine
examples of this: "Sleepers,"
"True Confessions," "Gran Turino," "On the
Did anything ring
true in "Novitiate"? Yes, the habits weren't heinous, and there were
several disjointed elements regarding antiquated religious life practices and
attitudes that were spot on. How do I know this? I'm an "insider,"
have heard many firsthand anecdotes, and when I first entered religious life, I
experienced the tail-end of old-school formation myself.
NUNS AND HUMAN
The big, screaming tragedy of the whole film (similar to the
emptied-of-all-meaning, off-the-mark, absurd, picayune rules and regulations in
"Nun's Story") is the true-to-life
unhealthy dealing with human sexuality in religious life prior to Vatican II.
Young women--still in their teens--were accepted into the formation process,
and pretty much the only formation given them with regard to human sexuality
was to repress not only sexual
expression/temptations, but any form of physical contact. Catherine (our seventeen-year-old
protagonist) can't even hold her mother's hand on visiting day.
Needless to say,
this did not form anyone, only deformed them and exacerbated the living of
celibacy. THANKS BE TO GOD FOR JOHN PAUL II'S "THEOLOGY OF THE BODY"
WHICH--SADLY--IS STILL NOT TAUGHT IN-DEPTH IN ALL CONVENTS AND SEMINARIES. But
at least we have the answer now. The answer (Theology of the Body) is not repression or indulgence (a concurrent heresy of the 1960's Sexual Revolution!) of
body/sex/desires, but rather the redemption of body/sex/desires! And how do we
live this "redemption of the body" of which Paul's Letter to the Romans speaks?
Through the practice of the amazing and holistic virtue of chastity. Chastity
is an everyday, working virtue for everyone on the planet. Chastity doesn't mean "no sex" because married people are also called to chastity. JP2 the Great isn't being all judgy by saying "only the chaste are capable of true love." He doesn't mean perfection. He means trying. Because if we're not taking up the challenge of chastity every day, what are we doing? Whatever it is, it's certainly not love.
But don't we already know that another human being can't fulfill my deepest desires? (The young may not know it
yet, but anyone who has lived a little longer does, unless, as C. S. Lewis says: our desires aren't big enough.)
I could be wrong, but I suspect that although director and
actresses are fascinated by the "romance" of nun and God, if their
own faith is undefined or non-existent, you simply can't imagine a life without
sex, without a significant other, and you may even admire but ultimately pity
these poor, deprived women.
TWO BIGGEST BOO-BOO'S
OF THE FILM
SPOILER ALERT: Two big boo-boo's of the film (both of which
are THE major plot points/turns) are so big that they're veritable trainwrecks.
The first is something the filmmakers get exactly backwards.
The (male, hierarchical) Church was not who was "forcing" nuns to
"renew" or "update" religious life. It came from the nuns
themselves. In certain cases and places where "renewal" got out of
hand (e.g., in contradiction of the most basic tenets of
religious life), it was the bishops who tried to reign the nuns in (usually
with very little success). So many people who reference the vaporous,
chimerical "spirit of Vatican II" have either never read the 16
Documents of Vatican II, or use them as
a false justification for their own whims and agendas. If you read "Perfectae Caritatis," the
Vatican II document on religious life, you will find none of the wild,
doctrinally and pastorally unsound innovations Mother Superior says the Church
is demanding of nuns (when she finally addresses her community--in babyish
language!--about the goings-on of the Vatican II Council that she had been
concealing from them). In fact, most bishops have had a long-standing
"hands-off" policy with regard to the inner workings of authority
structures and day-to-day practices and activities of religious orders (both
male and female) in their dioceses.
The second boo-boo, which not only breaks the tension of "who
will get kicked out of the convent next??" (a big concern in this film), but completely deflates any stakes: the fact that Catherine is not sent home after she publicly confesses
to "having been intimate with another Sister." What happened? Catherine
sneaks into a fellow novice's room at night and begs to be "comforted."
Now, that could have been a hug or holding or snuggling, but no. It's lengthy,
full-on, lesbian-like lip-locking. Even though Catherine is a bit of a favorite
of the severe and legalistic (and sometimes psychotic and sadistic) Mother
Superior, girls were sent home for much, much, much less. In reality, acting
out sexually is cause to send someone home from the convent--whether they are
in formation or vows. Yes, mistakes and failings happen, and it's a case by
case situation, but if someone is bent on another vocation or finds it
impossible to live celibate chastity, religious life is not their calling.
I don't know if the director has any faith in God, but she
stated in an interview that she wanted her film to be a requiem to this tribe
of women and their lost way of life. (Betts is into "telling women's
stories.") But why would you want to immortalize something so harsh, torturous,
humiliating and inhumane? And if one does not have Christian faith, then these
poor women are simply a bunch of delusionals pouring their lives out to nothing
and no one (as they often appear to be in the film). As a priest observed in a great
homily I heard: "In 'Novitiate,' the women are extremely self-absorbed.
There is nothing about living a life for others. St. Therese was also cloistered,
but she is the patroness of the missions because her love and prayer wasn't
just for herself or even just for God, it was for others." There's not even
any mention of "saving souls" with one's prayers and sacrifices, which
is a huge raison d'etre of
contemplative life and was a ubiquitous pre-Vatican II catchphrase.
So many intriguing subjects are broached in
"Novitiate," but then they are mishandled and bungled. "Novitiate"
is an inauthentic piece of failed filmmaking--a truly missed opportunity.
GOD AS A CHARACTER
God doesn't have to be a character in a religious film
(unseen or otherwise), but He does have to be real to at least one mature, non-psychotic
character. Religion without God is an empty cult. "Novitiate" is an
atheistic film on religious life, concerned mainly with trappings while taking
stabs at a maudlin, glamorized, nostalgic emotionality.
And may I say that
the magnificent Melissa Leo (who made the most of her half-dimensional character
and mostly unoriginal, stock religious dialogue) deserved better: especially
her last scene where she is ridiculously sprawled on the sanctuary of the
convent chapel after excoriating her "Husband" for the supposed
"changes" to religious life of Vatican II.
Want to see some three-dimensional (Anglican) nuns? Watch the
BBC series: "Call the
Midwife." I can't say enough about this series in general. These women
are "real" (the series is also based on a memoir), human, flawed, trying, charitable, holy, and
nuns for all the right reasons.
DOES SHE OR DOESN'T
The ending is rather good in the sense that it keeps us
guessing: Does Catherine go ahead in religious life or not? If there really IS
a God, AND she really believes in Him AND really loves Him AND is really called
to religious life, then He IS the "more" she is seeking. But the
first three components of the last sentence you just read apply to every human
being, don't they? Who can give you "more" (according to your
vocation in life)? God or another human being or "the world"?
SHOULD YOU WATCH THIS
Should you watch this film? I don't usually give
recommendations either way about whether I think someone should or shouldn't
see a film. But this one is a definite "skip it" film. Why? Unless
you can distinguish what is accurate and inaccurate about religious life (past
or present), you may wind up with a pretty mangled, skewed understanding of my
life. :) I would especially recommend
you NOT see "Novitiate" if you are discerning religious life! Even if
you are beginning to have a good grasp on convent life, you will be left with
lasting images and impressions which are really quite twisted.
Would you like to know what the heck actually went down with
Vatican II and religious life?
Read the definitive, even-handed and nuanced "Sisters in Crisis--Revisited" by Ann Carey, an extremely
readable account of a simple-and-complex-all-at-the-same-time saga.
Do you want
to read an account of some of the sad, cold indignities that religious women endured
in the past? Read Karen Armstrong's "The
Armstrong left the convent as well as belief in
God--but it is doubtful whether she ever had faith, even in the convent. It's
important to know that many (though not all) religious women really did suffer immensely before Vatican II from what was a devolution of religious life practices that, over the centuries,
had turned into something punitive and "austerity for austerity's
sake," doused with a good measure of Jansenism. Religious life often becamse obsessed with a formalistic, external perfectionism.
by Sr. Rose Pacatte, describes the life of the famous IHM Sisters of Los Angeles' resident artist-nun who eventually left the convent and the Catholic Faith. Similar to Karen Armstrong, one could question whether or not she had faith even in the convent. This book also outlines the leadership of L.A.'s Archbishop McIntyre with regard to the IHMs--albeit only from the point of view of those Sisters in the forefront of experimental changes.
Here's another short account of a pre-Vatican II disaster: "Sister Jaguar," abused at home and then abused in the convent: http://globalsistersreport.org/blog/gsr-today/spirituality/sister-jaguars-journey-takes-healing-odyssey-amazon-rainforest-48176
Do you want to know what
the Church actually teaches about religious life? Read "Perfectae Caritatis,"
the document from Vatican II on religious life (and subsequent Church
documents on religious life such as "Essential
Elements of Religious Life," "Vita
Consecrata," "Fraternal Life in Community," etc.) The CMSWR (Council of Major Superiors of Women
Religious) also put out this fine tome in the light of the true "spirit" and documents of Vatican II: "Foundations
of Religious Life."
Would you like to know the beating heart of
religious life? Read "And You Are
Christ's" by Fr. Thomas Dubay.
Would you like to know the soaring heights
of religious life? Read any women religious saints' own writings or "Enduring Grace" by Carol
--I'm not going to bother listing the umpteen, thunderous,
blunderous narrative inconsistencies and religious inaccuracies in the film.
--A great film on "vocation" (the secular vocation
of serving the common good in public office): "Amazing Grace," the
true story of William Wilberforce who made slavery illegal in England (and passed
so much other good legislation, founded the SPCA--that's why there's lots of
animals running around in the film). A then-unknown Benedict Cumberbatch plays
his good buddy who becomes Prime Minister and they join forces. Albert Finney
plays former slave trader, John Newton, who wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace."
This is one of the finest Christian films ever made.
BELOW IS MY ORIGINAL "NON-REVIEW" BEFORE I SAW THE FILM, WITH COMMENTS FROM MY FRIEND WHO HAD SEEN THE FILM AT TIFF:
The film "Novitiate"--which just premiered at TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival)--is a piece of inauthentic, failed filmmaking. I'm sooooo disapppointed because the above trailer looked sooooo promising. Too bad the trailer doesn't show us what the film is really about.
Why was I looking forward to "Novitiate"? I love Melissa Leo's fine acting (Mother Superior), and the trailer suggests that the film is going to explore what happened to religious life when the upheavals of the so-called "spirit of Vatican II" hit the fan, does it not? Religious life boasts a venerable tradition that just won't quit, and can be a kind of impenetrable subculture. So, what transpired to garner such radical changes in the Sisterhood--particularly in North America--almost overnight in the 1960's and 70's? What caused the exodus of 33,000 U.S. women religious from their vows and congregations during these turbulent times? This film, evidently, is not actually interested in that, and so the story still remains to be told. What do I mean by "evidently"? I did not see the film myself (I planned to, but was out of town). Instead, a movie-maven friend, Theodora, saw it and was horrified. (Theodora and I call ourselves "The Empresses of Film." Get it? Theodora and Helena?)
Probably the saddest thing about "Novitiate" is not the missed opportunity, but the fact that PEOPLE BELIEVE WHAT THEY SEE IN MOVIES and are going to think "this is what it's like" in the convent. On the heels of the clergy sex abuse scandal, why wouldn't they? Take it from an insider (moi): No, it's not. And it wasn't like that back in the day, either.