Novitiate—Drawn to the God of Love and Lust

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

The spark that lit the fire that became writer/director Maggie Betts’ new film Novitiate came from Mother Teresa. Betts did not grow up Catholic or religious. But while filming her documentary The Carrier about AIDS in Africa, she found herself in an airport bookstore in Kenya reaching for Father Brian Kolodiejchuk’s posthumous unauthorized collection of Mother Teresa’s private writings. Betts’ curiosity had already been piqued by the upstart Catholic missionary nuns she met in Africa who rejected the Vatican party line and promoted the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS.

Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light was not the book that Betts expected, nor was it the book that many of us expected when it came out in 2009. It was not so much how revealing those letters were about the depth of Mother Teresa’s sensual, desperate, passionate longing for her spouse, Jesus Christ, though the details of that were revealing. What shocked was the devastating doubt about God’s existence that plagued this spiritual icon of love and charity for much of her life. Mother Teresa’s writings are replete with evidence of her anguish: “The place of God in my soul is blank,” she wrote. “There is no God in me. God does not want me. He is not there.”

Novitiate tells the story of an idealistic young woman named Cathleen, beautifully played by Margaret Qualley (who also played Jill Garvey on HBO’s The Leftovers). From Cathleen’s childhood, we learn that her home life is a mess. Her mother, Nora, a no-holds barred woman (played with glorious abandon by Julianne Nicholson) is given to screaming profanities at Cathleen’s ne’er do well father across the dinner table. We also learn that this irreligious mother, as her daughter approaches age seven (played by Eliza Mason), feels obligated to arrange a perfunctory introduction to religion, so she takes Cathleen to a Catholic mass. But then Nora seems taken aback when she finds that the experience was meaningful for Cathleen, who found the service, unlike home, to be “peaceful.”

Cathleen’s attraction to that peace is multiplied when her mother has the opportunity to enroll her, tuition free, in Catholic school. There 12-year-old Cathleen (now played by Sasha Mason) is a loner. A lovely young nun befriends her, taking her into the church where Cathleen can sit alone before the Tabernacle, the Eucharist’s dwelling place. The girl is mesmerized. She spends hours there, falling deeply in love with the solitude and with God. Then one day, she has a subtle experience of light coming at her from that Tabernacle—the sign of her being called.

Cathleen takes immediate action, telling her mother that she is going enter the convent. Her mother goes berserk. “You’re 17-years-old!” Nora shouts. “You’re throwing your life away. Why?”

“I’m in love,” says Cathleen.

Incredulous, Nora blurts out: “With God?”

The answer, of course, is yes.

We follow Cathleen as she enters the cloistered convent with a bevy of other fresh-faced teenage girls. All of them are full of hope that they will be good enough to assume a life of total sacrifice and devotion to Jesus. But that means surviving the novitiate-training boot camp of the early 1960s (as well as the coming of Vatican II reforms, introduced later in the film). Under the thumb of the fearsome Mother Superior (brought scarily to life by Melissa Leo), the novices’ lives are totally circumscribed. They can only talk at appointed times; receive primitive punishments for minor misdeeds, like having to crawl back and forth on their hands and knees on the outdoor concrete floor; can never go home unless someone dies; and cannot touch another person.

From the start, doubt creeps in. We see the back of an unnamed nun kneeling alone at the altar, pleading with God: “Where are you?” Regularly, the novices must get on their knees in a circle for the “Chapter of Faults” to confess before the group. Often they confess doubt. “Am I communicating with him, or is it all in my head?” they ask. “Is God real? “

In addition to conveying the human experience of doubt among those who are turning their lives over to God, the film also brings into vivid relief the power of longing, physical as well as spiritual.

One night, Cathleen blindly discovers her body’s potential for pleasure. Under the covers, she begins to touch herself, more and more furtively, until she reaches orgasm. But any pleasure is fleeting. She asks Mother Superior to give her the knotted rope so she can flog herself, making up a minor offense as the reason. She stops eating. She becomes emaciated, so weak she passes out. She is ordered to bed.

Sister Emanuel (Rebecca Dayan), another novice, visits Cathleen in her room, bringing her soup and urging her to eat. But Emanuel wants to know: “Why? Why did you stop eating?”

Says Cathleen: “I thought if I starved on the outside, I wouldn’t feel myself starving so much on the inside.”

Moved by Cathleen’s sadness, Sister Emanuel touches Cathleen’s hand. At first Cathleen recoils, but then she reaches back, surrendering to her need for human connection.

Later than night, Cathleen does the unthinkable. She goes to Sister Emanuel’s room begging to be let in, repeating over and over, “please comfort me, please comfort me, please…” At first afraid and reluctant, Emanuel soon concedes, taking Cathleen into her room and her bed. We witness the sheer desperate power of Cathleen’s passion, the voraciousness of her sexual hunger. The scene is raw, frantic, and utterly without sensationalism. There is no nudity, no below the waist shot, no woman slamming her partner against a wall to illustrate unleashed passion. Yet, this is among the most powerful sex scenes I’ve ever seen.

And there’s something more at play here. We witness many portrayals of male teenage sexual awakening, from the raunchy to the romantic. But in girls, we rarely see it. Here, in this convent, paradoxically, we do. But not only in that scene of sexual congress. Female sexual awakening can reflect an undifferentiated yearning to give, receive, connect, to come to life.

Watching the young women in this film so deeply in love with God, so willing to sacrifice everything for their beloved, we see that awakening. On the day they wear their white wedding dresses and transition from ordinary girls to novices, a step closer to becoming brides of Christ, they sing and dance together outdoors, delirious with joy. While they are celebrating the promise of their upcoming unions, they are also celebrating each other. The ecstasy is shared.

For Mother Superior, the film’s moment in time doesn’t give, but takes away what she loved. While it’s easy to appreciate the joy of so many Catholics at the coming of the liberalizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council, it can be harder to appreciate the agony those changes caused for women like this Mother Superior. She has lived the traditional cloistered nun’s life for 40 years. “The Church held me,” she says. “It gave me my work, my community, my identity.” She sees the reforms as “invalidating” her entire life. You feel the depth of her loss.

Arguably, Maggie Betts was able to achieve what she achieved with her first narrative feature (which won her the 2017 Sundance Film Festival Breakthrough Director Award) not only because she wrote and directed the film, but also because she assembled a sterling, nearly all-female cast and production crew, including a female director of photography. But most of all, Betts had a very clear vision.

Through her research, she came to see nuns as “deeply romantic and intensely emotional people.” She wrote Novitiate because “I saw in a nun’s world a unique and profound way to explore the subject of the way women love. That is what remains at the heart of the story for me.”