December 4, 2017


The new fictitious film, "Novitiate," set in the early 1960's, about a young woman entering a strict monastic order of nuns 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.


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.


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," etc. 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 Waterfront."

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.


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.


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 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.


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 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 Spiral Staircase." 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.

"Corita Kent" 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:

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 Flinders.


--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.


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.

Here's what Theodora reports:

I cannot stress enough how awful this film was. Just a steaming pile of unredeemable garbage
The laziest example of filmmaking ever. Made no sense.
Not one positive thing about it. They didn't even get the look of the 60s right. Priests vestments were of a later period. Just distractingly terrible.
You should not watch it! It will be time you can never retrieve. The girls all spoke with California voice fry... I wanted to stab my ears with an ice pick. Sexy girls, two scenes of masturbating, they were like totally in love with Jesus, praying to the sanctuary lamp (the light of christ) no tabernacle in sight, one girl wasn't even catholic but still accepted into the convent cause she was totally in love with jesus, shots of naked sexy nuns, comforting themselves by making out...
It was a horror show!
The director/writer spoke about how she wasn't religious but spiritual. She was inspired by reading the bio of mother teresa, never heard of the church before, and was intrigued that this woman was so passionate and in love with her husband Jesus. So she looked up other bios of nuns on Amazon (i kid you not this was her research...i wish i videoed the interview) and she saw in all the synopsis that there was mention of vatican 2 and novitiate....
So she decided to pick one at random and read it... Read a lot of books. No mention of actually consulting living nuns or ex-nuns
I had my hand up the whole time straining to ask a question ... Wasn't picked

I love controversial films and this film was banal and plain stupid.... So many things were irritatingly terribly lazy. For instance, I'm livid about this one, the nun teacher when the protagonist is a little girl writes in TERRIBLE cursive on the black board. No way in heck would a teacher let alone a nun in the 50s get away with such cursive.

Get the warning out there!! It was horrible. Just horrible.


  1. Anonymous2:54 PM

    Thanks for saving me $15.

  2. Just saw Novitiate. What a mess it is! It makes the vulgar but farcical The Little Hours look like Diary of a Country Priest by comparison. Novitiate further perpetuates the pseudo-history that Vatican II changed the Mass and promoted universalism. The characters say "changes" so often and with little elaboration as to what those "changes" are that it becomes a meaningless word. Melissa Leo, while a good actress, becomes such a caricature of a traditionalist mother superior. I wonder how her character would've reacted if they, I don't know, actually read the documents!

    Oh, and apparently lesbianism cures anorexia. Goodness me... :/

  3. I haven't seen it yet - just the trailer and some clips but I cannot adequately describe the emotional impact it had on me. I was just past my 18th birthday when I joined a semi-cloistered order in 1960. I stayed for nine years and finally left in utter despair, unable to reconcile all the suffering I saw in the world with the idea of a loving God.
    The public humiliation and penances never discouraged me, but they wounded me far more than I ever realized.( I am 75 years old and spent a therapy session last week sobbing about long buried memories.) At one point, the Mistress of Novices ordered me to make a "necklace" stringing together pieces of plates, cups and assorted things I had broken and to wear it in public. The harder I tried not to break anything, the more I failed. I was repeatedly given the penance of "praying in Chapel". This entailed leaving my choir stall and going to the center of the chapel, kneeling, kissing the floor, extending my hands in the form of a cross and saying out loud, three time, "Jesus obedient onto death, even to death on the cross, teach me the true spirit of religious obedience." I kissed the feet of the Sisters in the refectory, I prostrated outside the chapel as the nuns walked over my body. I publicly accused myself of my faults, to name just some of the acts of public penance and humiliation we were subjected to. At one point, the Mistress of Novices brought in a "charm teacher" b/c I and another novice "Walked like a farmer," had difficulty modulating our voices, controlling our boundless energy (running up the stairs two at a time) and in general were not nun like in our manner. And after first Profession, I dutifully subjected my body to the lash we were given on the eve of taking our First vows.
    I bear no anger, no animosity because it was not done to abuse me. It was the culture of the time and it was how nuns were trained. What was lacking was any serious attention to our spiritual development. Not once did any one sit down with me face to face or even in a group to offer any spiritual direction or guidance. I was so ignorant (and had so suppressed all sexual feelings) that I had never heard the word orgasm much less experienced one and yet, I was allowed to take a vow of chastity w/o even knowing what I was giving up. Many years latter I finally realized that "particular friendship" was code for "lesbian relationship."
    I entered seeking God and left still seeking. My particular journey took me to Buddhism because it gave me a method of going deeper, beyond words and ideas, to the Still Point.
    Since I haven't seen the movie, I don't know if the sexual scenes were exploitive or not but certainly now, looking back and talking with other ex-nuns, no one can deny that there was some sexual activity that resulted in people being sent home.
    From what I've seen I can only say it struck a deep and painful chord, not only in me but in other ex-nuns. I believe the training has changed and improved and hope that Sisters today are able to more fully develop their spiritual lives beyond Stage 3 of James Fowler's Stages of Faith
    I'm not going to quibble about the things they may have gotten wrong, I can only tell you from what I've seen and from two of my friends who are ex-nuns and saw the movie, that it captured the pain, humiliation, and lack of religious formation that caused so many of us to leave. This flawed film reflects much of what the Church got wrong and has attempted to set it right.