She enters the convent in 1964, at seventeen, while her peers are exploring boys and the Beatles.
At the age of seven, shy Cathleen (Margaret Qualley, in an extraordinary performance) discovers the Roman Catholic Church, to the dismay of her rebellious mother. At twelve, she falls in love with the idea of becoming a nun.
The Sisters of the Beloved Rose are not any order. At a time when Vatican II tried to reform the Catholic Church and young nuns were a staple at protest rallies, these Sisters stay cloistered, often in silence and prayer. The Reverend Mother makes available "the discipline," a small whip that had long disappeared from convent life elsewhere, and encourages novitiates to use it on themselves. As played by Melissa Leo, Reverend Mother blends devotion, sadism, and an unexpected dash of feminism.
Vatican II gets presented, typically, as Catholicism's attempt to modernize. Conservatives in the church see it as a movement that made too many worldy concessions. This film exposes another view. Vatican II effectively removed from nuns what little power they had.
Unlike Sister Aloysius from Doubt (2008), the Reverend Mother lacks a developed sense of uncertainty. Her assurance, however, gives her no recourse against the hierarchy's dictates. Changes may improve the church, but they cost these women their self-concept and community.
It's not a perfect community. Cathleen battles with limited success against sexual desires. Another nun breaks down and, wearing only headgear, cowl and twat on display, makes proclamations of doom.
Novitiate (2017), written and directed by Margaret Betts, makes for compelling and uneasy viewing. It asks many questions and provides few answers. As happened at this time, many nuns drift away from convent and vows. Cathleen's journey remains incomplete; she still wants more than the world has given her.