The Novitiate: A Religious Film Critique Part 3

​Academic Essay

This essay examines the movie The Novitiate and how it uses the interactions between characters to comment on how the reformation both aided and hurt the Catholic community with a focus on the convent community. It was written while taking my Religion & Film Class during Spring Quarter 2018. 

Catholicism and the secular have been in discussion with each other for years. The historical changes of the Vatican II that allowed the Church to become more “aware of the ‘signs of the times’” was a measure for the church to incorporate secular values that were becoming more mainstream such as human rights and dignity (1). And, although Charles Long argues that the secular never influences the religious directly, we see the Catholic Church create an entire committee, the Organisation Catholique International du Cinéma, dedicated to maintaining dialogue with the secular (2). This displays that the secular does influence religion, the Church. With this dialogue established, The Novitiate, a secular media, was produced to further the conversation. More specifically, The Novitiate uses the interactions of Reverend Mother to comment on how the reformation both aided and hurt the Catholic community with a focus on the convent community.

Through her extreme disciplinary role, the Reverend Mother shows viewers how psychological and physically damaging the traditions of the Catholic Church were before the reformation. She tormented the training postulates, and novitiates, to the point of tears and forced them through dominance and verbal assault to complete a variety of self-punishing acts. These acts were meant to redeem the training women and push them to become more perfect for Jesus; however, we see Reverend Mother punish the postulates and novitiates out of personal anger and issues. Her conflict towards the reformation of Vatican II is shown as motivation for punishing them rather than the true purpose of the redemptive acts. When Sister Mary Grace tries to ask the Reverend Mother to consider the reformation with an open mind, the Reverend Mother lashes out verbally. Sister Mary Grace wanted Reverend Mother to end the cruel punishments and change traditions for nuns to experience the love of Jesus without abuse. Afterwards, Sister Mary Grace decides to leave the convent for reasons unspoken, but it is understood that her repulsion to the traditions upheld by Reverend Mother sends her away from the convent. By displaying the wrath and cruelty of the convent through Mother Reverend, The Novitiate pushes the viewer to feel disgusted and horrified at the Catholic Church. This evoked repulsion makes the viewer hope that the future reforms will enhance the nuns’ way of life traditions.

During and after the interaction with the Archbishop, the Reverend Mother changes into a sympathetic character. The movie begins to change its perspective of the reform to include the harmful ways the reformation affected the community. First, we are presented with the submission of the Mother Reverend by the Archbishop addressing her solely by her name, Marie. In addition, he sets the scene with tea in hand; then, he asks her for tea, as if she is a guest in his home. From a woman’s perspective, this is disheartening. Even though her role in the Church is logistically lower than him, he could still respect her position at the convent, her home. This submission and disrespect of Marie by the Archbishop continues throughout the scene until he decides to leave. This is a pivotal point, as Mother Reverend is beginning to also represent how the reformation damaged those it was trying to aid. We see the harsh traditions being taken away, but this dialogue did not include the nuns themselves. When Mother Reverend tries to ask for the inclusion of the nuns’ voices for the Archbishop only to reply “Marie, Marie, that’s not how it works.” It is here The Novitiates critique becomes more complex as it displays the negative aspects of the Vatican II, and the continued patriarchal structure of the Church despite its attempt to reform.

It is in the next scene that we see Mother Reverend fully embody the double-sided perspective of the Vatican II reformation policies enacted. While telling her fellow nuns what the recent reformations made by the Church meant for the nuns and their regulations. She maintained her loyalty to tradition and through her tears and heart break, told her Sisters that their status in the Church, and to Jesus was no longer of any importance. When the scene transitions to scan the audience, the damage of the reformation is understood further, especially when it focuses on the eldest nun, for this panning technique displays the number of women who went through much love and devotion to Christ as well as rigorous self-punishment. It also shows how individual this damage was to the established nun community. This is reinforced with the transition to the scene where Mother Reverend breaks down and expresses her heartbreak to Jesus. Mother Reverend’s heart break was felt by the community at large she early spoke to and the at large nun community they represent. It is here her character fully represents both the positive and negative effects of the reformation of Vatican II.

Despite Long’s argument that secular should never explain religion, The Novitiate explains in depth the effects of the Vatican II reformation and what exactly it was attempting to reform through the character of Mother Reverend and her relations to the other characters. It even went further to critique the reformations lack of women’s voices, nuns’ voices, in creating these new regulations and statuses, which may still be reflected in the policy making of the Church today due to the continued lack of women in high religious positions.


1. 52. Peter Malone, “The Roman Catholic Church and Cinema (1967 to the Present),” In The Routledge Companion to Religion and Film, ed. by John Lyden (London and New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2009), 3.

2. Charles Long, Significations: Signs, Symbols, and Images in the Interpretation of Religion. (Aurora, CO: The Davies Group, 1999).

3. Charles Long, Significations: Signs, Symbols, and Images in the Interpretation of Religion. (Aurora, CO: The Davies Group, 1999).