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Movie Review

We are called by God. So Christians say. But what does that call look like? Sound like?

Moses found his in a burning bush. Samuel heard an audible whisper. Paul was brought to his knees on the way to Damascus. Yet few of us experience our calls so surely, so distinctly. We hear, yes. We follow. But how do we know? How do we know it's real?

In the early 1960s, Cathleen Harris believes she hears the call of God. She hears the whisper of Jesus, asking her to love Him in a special way, to follow Him all the days of her life. Cathleen believes that she's called to be a nun.

Strange, given that Cathleen didn't grow up as a Catholic. She didn't grow up as anything. Nora, Cathleen's mother, believes that religion is just "a waste of time." But one Sunday morning with nothing better to do, Nora takes her young daughter to Mass.

"I just thought it was about time to show Cathleen what religion was all about," she explains to the priest. "Or was supposed to be about." It's a field trip, really—an anthropological study for the 7-year-old girl.

But Cathleen is drawn to what she hears about God's unconditional love. She gravitates toward the peace she feels during the service. And peace is something the little girl desperately needs.

Cathleen's father leaves forever, trailing a string of curse words behind him. Nora welcomes a parade of paramours. So when Cathleen receives a scholarship to a local Catholic school with an impeccable scholastic reputation, she finds the school a place of refuge. She learns more about the mysterious faith of her teachers. The more she sees and hears, the more she likes it.

Her father was a louse. Her mom's other beaus are no better. But Jesus … now, there's a guy who'll never let Cathleen down. He'll protect her. Cherish her. Love her.

"I'm in love, mom!" Cathleen says when she announces her decision to become a nun.

"You're a 17-year-old girl," Nora tells her. "You don't know anything about religion, and you sure as h--- don't know anything about love."

But Reverend Mother Marie St. Clair, head of the convent that Cathleen joins, knows about the love of Christ and the sacrifice it entails. She joined the convent when she was no older than Cathleen; she hasn't set foot outside its walls for 40 years. She, like her fellow nuns, wear habits. They follow strict codes of conduct. Should they sin in deed or word or thought, they must be punished—to the point of flagellating themselves.

But change is coming, even at the Reverend Mother's beloved convent. The Second Vatican Council, called by Pope John XXIII, calls for sweeping changes throughout the Catholic Church—changes that the Reverend Mother worries will destroy her convent's way of life.

Changes, too, may be coming to Cathleen; strange stirrings that invade her prayers and undermine her single-minded devotion to Jesus. And in the quiet, lonely hours of the morning, as her dreams drift to baser pleasures, Cathleen wonders whether she heard a calling after all.

Positive Elements

Novitiate is a ticklish movie to parse into positives. Here's what we can say: Cathleen's devotion to Jesus is, initially, real and strong. When she senses that devotion is beginning to waver or get muddied by circumstances, she goes to some great lengths to extinguish those disturbing impulses.

Nora doesn't understand Cathleen's commitment to God, but she does her best to accept it—attending every solemn ceremony on Cathleen's way to nunhood. But when that faith seems to be making Cathleen physically sick, Nora grows alarmed and does what I think most loving mothers would do: She confronts the Reverend Mother, threatening to drag the girl out of the convent if she has to.

Spiritual Content

If there's a villain in Novitiate, the Reverend Mother is it. But to the film's credit, we also see the troubled heart behind her strict, unforgiving façade: she believes that Vatican II will be the end of a way of life that she has, literally, sacrificed everything for. By the end, she reaffirms her commitment to God. "I made a commitment 40 years ago," she says. "And even if You choose to turn Your light from me forever, I'm Yours."

The film offers a glimpse of monastic life pre-Vatican II, including its religious services (where the priest speaks in Latin with his back toward the congregation), traditions (the nuns' familiar habits) and routines (loaded with prayers, both public and private; as well as times of strict silence). The movie suggests that nuns—again, before Vatican II—thought they had a more elevated relationship with God than other believers did.

Among the reforms of Vatican II are the elimination of the mandatory habits, as well as any sense that nuns are "more beloved" in God's eyes. The Reverend Mother initially resists these reforms. When the archbishop visits to ask why she has not obeyed, she explains she thought the reforms were only "suggestions."

The Reverend Mother leads a class in which the girls are strongly encouraged to confess the sins that might be short-circuiting their intimacy with Christ. The Reverend Mother also implores the novitiates to identify times when another sister has been selfish, mean or un-Christlike.

This class becomes a place when some novitiates share their doubts. "What if He actually doesn't exist?" one asks. "What if it was something we all made up one day?" The same young woman also wonders, if God does exist, why do we lock ourselves up in convents? "Are we spreading any sort of love and kindness?" she asks. Others express frustration at the obvious temporal limitations of committing so completely to a seemingly distant, untouchable God. "I wish I could be more loved back," one says. "I wish we all knew for sure that He loves us as much as we love Him."

The Reverend Mother asks novitiates to perform acts of contrition and penance for their doubts and sins. Sometimes the novitiates themselves initiate spiritual punishments. We see several crawl on their hands and knees as they weep and pray. The Reverend Mother hands out a small flail called the "discipline," which they're told to use on themselves.

As the pressure to institute Vatican II's reforms grows ever more excruciating for the Reverend Mother, she gets nastier. She tells one questioning novitiate that her musings have become "tiresome," and that her "spiritual wretchedness" makes any acts of penance a waste of time. "Why bother?" she says dismissively.

When the reforms are instituted, the Reverend Mother's worst fears seem to be confirmed. Only five novitiates choose to become full-fledged nuns. A postscript slide tells us that 90,000 nuns renounced their vocation and left convents in the wake of Vatican II.

Sexual Content

When nuns commit their lives to Christ, they are said to be marrying God. When they agree to become full-fledged novitiates, girls wear special dresses in a "wedding" ceremony. After the ceremony, one exults, "We're married! We're married! I love you, God!" Liturgies performed by the nuns take on an intimate, even vaguely sexual character: "Let him kiss me with the kisses of His mouth," one recites, alluding to Song of Solomon 1:2. And while Cathleen prays one day, she grasps the covers of her bed almost as if trying to give Jesus a passionate hug. "I love you, God," she says. "I love you so much."

But obviously, being married to God carries with it some inherent physical limitations. Some novitiates seek sexual gratification in other ways. One novitiate appears to masturbate (mostly indicated by her intense facial expressions). The Reverend Mother kicks out two other would-be nuns, suspecting them of having an "improper relationship" with each other. (We don't see the novitiates in question together, though.)

[Spoiler Warning] Cathleen begins to struggle with her own sexual urges. We see her apparently have an orgasm, either while she's sleeping or half awake. She's horrified and tries to correct her urges. But as she recovers in the convent infirmary from some of her self-instilled punishments, she comes in contact with another novitiate struggling with the same issues. Though they resist their mutual attraction in that encounter, they don't when Cathleen later sneaks into the other novitiate's room. Kissing and passionate embraces ensue. (We see bare shoulders.)

Cathleen confesses (though doesn't reveal who she committed it with) during the Reverend Mother's class. "I want to accuse myself of having feelings, feelings I'm not sure I'm supposed to have," she says. "I wanted someone to touch me. I wanted someone to make me feel more than God can give me." But she also wonders whether what she did is actually a sin, because it didn't feel like one to her.

A nun disrobes in her room in a scene that shows her completely unclothed from the front. A cross falls from the wall and, naked, she picks it up. She's shown partly nude in another scene, covering her breast with her hand.

Elsewhere, a young Cathleen sees one of her mother's suitors buckling back up his pants. Nora tries to tell Cathleen that he's just "a friend." "Another one?" Cathleen asks snidely.

An elderly nun, completely naked except for her headgear, wanders into the convent's communal dining room, and begins to prophesy about big changes coming. She proclaims herself to be "naked before God." We see her fully nude from the front: The Reverend Mother suggests to someone to cover her up and gently escort her away.

We hear novitiates talk about former boyfriends and romantic experiences, including kissing.

Violent Content

To expunge impure thoughts from her mind, Cathleen asks the Reverend Mother for the "discipline." we see her take down her habit and undergarment (we see her from behind) and beat her back and shoulders with the flail, which leaves bright-red stripes across her back. She begins to starve herself, too—eventually fainting from lack of food. "If I made myself starve on the outside, I wouldn't feel myself starving as much on the inside," she later explains.

Crude or Profane Language

Ten f-words, all of which are uttered by Cathleen's mother and father. We also hear an s-word, two uses of the word "h---" and one abuse of Jesus' name.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Nora smokes cigarettes.

Other Negative Elements

The Reverend Mother is belittling and abusive to those under her.


"So many people settle for a love that doesn't ask anything of them, that they don't have to make any sacrifices for. I don't want that. I want an ideal that I have to give everything to."

Those are the first words we hear in Novitiate: provocative, challenging, beautiful. And, the movie ultimately suggests, empty.

Documentary filmmaker Margaret Betts wrote and directed the fictional Novitiate after reading a biography of Mother Teresa on a plane, discovering Teresa's anguished letters over the silence of God. She clearly finds the nuns' lives fascinating and treats even the ogrish Reverend Mother with respect and a kind of tenderness. The movie dares to see faith as more than a mental exercise: It understands that that faith can be undergirded by sincere, sometimes overpowering emotion.

But in the end, Novitiate, like many of its characters, walks away from this curious form of faith a bit bewildered, a bit disgusted. The call of the body is more important than the call of the soul, Cathleen ultimately discovers. And perhaps the call of the soul was all just made up, anyway.

Christians, and especially Catholics, will find plenty to dislike in Novitiate. It certainly doesn't help matters that its anguished and doubt-filled theological musings are expressed within the context of same-sex relationships and naked nuns. Some will call the film blasphemy. If the Reverend Mother had any authority over Margaret Betts, I'm guessing she'd have the director crawl from Los Angeles to St. Louis, uttering many a penitent prayer along the way.

But the movie's failures make me more sad than angry. For all the attention paid to Cathleen and the Reverend Mother, Novitiate feels as though it stands more in the shoes of Cathleen's disbelieving mother, Nora: At once wanting to understand what Cathleen sees in Jesus but, ultimately, unable to look Him in the eye.

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

Other Belief Systems

Authority Roles



Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Episode Reviews



Readability Age Range





Margaret Qualley as Sister Cathleen Harris; Dianna Agron as Sister Mary Grace; Morgan Saylor as Sister Evelyn; Julianne Nicholson as Nora Harris; Liana Liberato as Sister Emily; Melissa Leo as Reverend Mother Marie St. Clair; Denis O'Hare as Archbishop McCarthy


Margaret Betts ( )


Maven Pictures



Record Label



In Theaters

November 24, 2017

On Video

March 6, 2018

Year Published



Paul Asay

Content Caution

We hope this review was both interesting and useful. Please share it with family and friends who would benefit from it as well.

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