So many people settle for a love that doesn't really ask anything of them. That they don't have to make any sacrifices for. I don't want that. I want an ideal love that I have to give everything to.
It's 1964. Cathleen Harris (Margaret Qualley) is a Catholic convert, the daughter of a working-class atheist single mom (Julianne Nicholson). Feeling she has been called by God to devote her life to holy service, she enters the contemplative order of the Blessed Rose. One expects an enclosed convent to be strict, but Rev. Mother Marie Saint-Claire (Melissa Leo) is running the place like a Cult. The first thing she tells the aspiring postulants is that her voice must be regarded as a stand-in for God's, and asking any questions at all is grounds for instant dismissal.
Mother is unhinged, putting it mildly, but part of it is understandable. The Second Vatican Council called by Pope John XXIII is on, and is commanding numerous changes and reforms to common Catholic Church practices. Mother feels that the old ways are the Church's (and her) connection to God and without them the whole establishment (and her faith, her identity, not just her authority) will crumble. She's also pissed that nuns weren't given a voice at the council to speak about the changes that affect them in such crucial ways, and she lets the Archbishop know about it. To protect her faith and that of her nuns, she commits an act of extreme disobedience; she actually doesn't tell them about the orders for reform and openness that have come to her from higher up. To contrast with Mother Marie is one of her senior right-hand Sisters, novice mistress Mary Grace (Dianna Agron), who calls her out and opines that a more liberal approach to religion could be a good thing.
Meanwhile, the postulants and novices go through formation, learning the routines, testing whether their hearts and minds can be molded into the Holy Rule of the order and finding out that dedication to God is no easy life, particularly when your Reverend Mother is wound up tighter than a harp string.
Novitiate was created by Afro-American writer/director Maggie Betts and won a jury award at Sundance for direction. The crew as well as the cast were almost all women.
- Christianity is Catholic: Lampshaded. All the postulants are cradle Catholics to the point that when Cathleen says she was not born into the faith they splutter "But...is that even allowed?" note
- Cliffhanger: Averted. Up to the last second, it looks as if Cathleen is going to take her final vows, binding herself to the awful convent forever, despite earlier misgivings (we've just seen Sr. Evelyn take hers, looking absolutely terrified to the point of Bring My Brown Habit, while her oblivious parents look on proudly). Viewers of Doubt might expect an ambiguous ending. Or Freeze Frame (like the final seconds of Magnum, P.I.) right before she speaks the words. Instead, when the priest says "What do you seek?" she reflects for a moment, then quietly says "I seek something more." If you found yourself letting out a held breath at that moment, you weren't the only one.
- A Date with Rosie Palms: Sister Mary Grace masturbates, but she is anguished and miserable, not enjoying it. She's "in a lot more secret pain and confusion than even she herself realizes." Later on, Cathleen masturbates in her sleep. She's so guilty about it she stops eating and requests to take the discipline (although she names other faults, not this, when she speaks to Mother Marie).
- Deer in the Headlights: The novices all develop this look, while keeping their eyes down. By film's end some of them have a Thousand-Yard Stare. Sister Anne, Mary Grace's assistant, also has this jumpy, terrified look when she's standing close to Mother Marie.
- Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life: This seems to be the main reason why Cathleen and other girls want to join the convent.
- Full-Frontal Assault: Nothing violent happens, but when the older nun enters the refectory wearing nothing but her coif and shoes, proclaiming that change is coming — she's heard rumors about Vatican II — it has the force of an attack. The postulants can't stop laughing nervously, while the elder nuns are horrified.
- Give Me a Sign: The postulants seek signs from God that he wants them to be nuns, but Marie's brutality leaves them less certain of their own feelings, wondering if he even exists.note Toward film's end, Cathleen speaks frankly to God: "If you want me to stay, then I'll stay. But I can't tell if that's what you want anymore. I can't hear you, and I don't know..." Cue the crucifix on her wall crashing to the floor.
- Mama Bear: Cathleen's mother Nora. She mocks Cathleen's choice at first, saying she knows nothing of love or religion. Over the years she comes to admire Cathleen's determination, but realizing she's starving herself (not fasting as part of a ritual or penance — she explains later she's starved for human comfort) Nora comes roaring into Mother Marie's office and lets loose with a "The Reason You Suck" Speech complete with a Precision F-Strike that probably got applause in theaters. Julianne Nicholson's performance is breathtaking.
- Naughty Nuns: Cathleen begs Emanuel to comfort her, leading the pair into sex. Earlier as well Mother Marie dismisses two novices over being "inappropriate". It's not clear whether they were queer or simply starved for human affection, as seems to be the case with Cathleen. Real life convents are well aware "particular friendships" become sexual sometimes and don't dismiss novices or nuns solely for this.
- Nun Too Holy bordering on Nuns Are Spooky: Mother Marie is downright cruel to her charges. She screams at them, kicks them out for routine faults and her Chapter of Faults sessions are more like BDSM scening.note
- Nuns 'n' Rosaries: Used as a major plot point. The Roses wear a very traditional "penguin" habit and Mother wants to keep them in it long past the time that Vatican II has said they can dispense with it.
- Screw This, I'm Outta Here: Sister Mary Grace. The Inciting Incident is when Mother Marie goes over her head and throws out two novices who were "becoming a bit too intimate".note Mary Grace lets Marie have it about the Vatican II coverup, and after a brief shouting match she leaves the Roses for good — but not without some parting words to her novices.Mary Grace. I want each and every one of you to know that I love you with everything in my heart.
- Mother Marie doesn't appoint a replacement, but takes over the training of the novices herself. This is quite likely against the Rule of the order.
- Small Reference Pools: Catholics and others who are even slightly familiar with how convents really work — even if they've just seen The Nun's Story, Doubt, In This House of Brede or Agnes of God — will be on yellow alert the instant Rev. Mother says she is the voice of God, "because He can't be there Himself" note and forbids questions. People whose experience of nuns is limited to the Stern Nun type in school are likely to think this is how it really is. Abuse survivors will likely take one look at the facial expressions and postures of Sister Anne and the novices and recognize that the Roses are not a normal monastery at all.
- Stay in the Kitchen: The Archbishop's attitude is implied to be that of the whole Church. When Mother Marie says it was a "slap in the face" for nuns not to have any say in the Vatican II changes, he responds with amused patronization: "You really expected them to have a voice, the sisters?"note
- Stern Nun: There are several besides Mother Marie; also several kindly ones who remind the girls just by existing of what they came there for.
- Taking the Veil: What the film is about, down to the technical details involved.
- A Taste of the Lash: The Roses use the old-fashioned "discipline", a seven-stranded cord with hard knots, on themselves. Cathleen is shown using it properly, flinging it over her shoulders to cause pain but not injury.
- Truth in Television: See the Trivia section. The victims of Sr. Theresa Kovacs at the Sisters Minor of Mary Immaculate had to escape undercover.
In the years that followed Vatican II, the Church witnessed a mass exodus of nuns on a scale it had never seen before. 90,000 nuns renounced their vocations and left their convents.