Novitiate (film)

Novitiate is a 2017 American drama film written and directed by Maggie Betts, in her feature directorial debut. Starring Margaret Qualley, Melissa Leo, Morgan Saylor, Dianna Agron, Julianne Nicholson, Liana Liberato, Denis O'Hare, and Maddie Hasson, the film follows a young woman (Qualley) who starts to question her faith as she trains to become a nun.

Theatrical release poster
Directed byMaggie Betts
Produced by
Written byMaggie Betts
Music byChristopher Stark
CinematographyKat Westergaard
Edited bySusan E. Morse
Distributed bySony Pictures Classics
Release date
  • January 20, 2017 (2017-01-20) (Sundance)
  • October 27, 2017 (2017-10-27) (United States)
Running time
123 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
Box office$580,346 (North America)[2]


This is a story of the effect of Vatican II (1962-65) on the Catholic Church, as seen in one convent, through the eyes of the tough old-fashioned Mother Superior, the kinder, younger, and more modern nuns, and the Postulants and Novices, particularly Sister Cathleen.

In 1954, seven-year-old Cathleen Harris lives in rural in Tennessee with her mother, Nora, a factory worker, who is non-religious but wants to show Cathleen a church and let her make her own decision. Cathleen's father, Chuck, comes home late, drunk, and argues with his wife. Chuck eventually leaves. Nora supports herself and picks up a series of men for one-night stands. At age 12, Cathleen seeks love of her own, and finds it in Catholicism when two nuns visit her home and offer her enrollment at a Catholic girls' school. The school offers her free tuition and a full scholarship to any college Cathleen chooses if her grades are excellent. At the school one day, a young nun befriends Cathleen and describes how she is married to Christ. At age 17 in the year 1964, after Cathleen comes home from school and runs into another one of her mother's pickups, Cathleen decides to leave home and give her life to God.

With twenty other girls, Cathleen joins the Sisters of the Beloved Rose. She will be a postulant for six months in their convent, after which she will become a novice for a year and a half, and then make her final vows to become a nun. The Abbess, Reverend Mother Marie Saint-Clair, is tough, cold, traditional and largely responsible for training and disciplining the postulants. She leads the postulants through the weekly "chapter of faults," in which they must publicly confess to all their faults and face the accusation of the other postulants, for which Mother Superior assigns extreme, humiliating penances, including "The Discipline," a knotted whip that they use to flagellate themselves.

Sister Mary Grace, a young, warm, kind, and progressive nun, is the Postulant Mistress, who tries to make life easier for them. Most of the day is heavily regimented, but sometimes the postulants fall into girlish activities and giggling. Cathleen tends to avoid interacting with the other girls and spends her free time alone and reading from the Bible.

Mother Superior keeps getting envelopes from Archbishop McCarthy about Vatican II, which she ignores. Sister Mary Grace sees the documents, and says that change would be good. Mother Superior cuts her off with, "The Church is perfect exactly the way it is." Later, they argue, and Sister Mary Grace challenges Mother Superior's authority. Sister Mary Grace goes off to pray, and decides to leave the convent.

After six months, Cathleen takes her Simple Vows and becomes a novice. As Reverend Mother grows increasingly harsh, 18-year-old Sister Cathleen undergoes a sexual awakening. Cathleen stirs one night after masturbating in her sleep. She stops eating and interacting with the other novices and nuns over her "impure thoughts". When her mother visits the convent to deliver news about her father Chuck's passing, she notices Cathleen's pale and emaciated appearance. Nora threatens the Reverend Mother over her daughter's treatment, but Reverend Mother bushes it off, saying that Nora no longer has a daughter but that Cathleen has now given her life to the Church. Cathleen eventually collapses during dinner one evening from starvation and dehydration, she is sent to the infirmary for several days where she confides in another young nun, Sister Emanuel. Later on, Cathleen sneaks out of the infirmary and into Sister Emanuel's room where Cathleen tells her that she longs for "comfort," leading to a kiss and their having sexual intercourse. After this, Cathleen leaves the infirmary and shows signs of recovery, is eating again and showing quiet happiness, but neither she or Sister Emanuel ever discuss their sexual encounter.

Meanwhile, Archbishop McCarthy pays a visit to the convent. He tells Mother Superior that "this order in particular" is having difficulty embracing the changes of Vatican II. She dismisses the "ridiculous reforms." He tells her that if she can't adapt to the changes, she will be replaced. As for "that old medieval stuff," the extreme penances, "That's gotta stop." Mother Superior is devastated. She fears God has abandoned her. At a subsequent Chapter of Faults, a novice confesses that she questions God's existence. Mother Superior tells her she's tired of hearing of her spiritual wretchedness and assigns her no penance at all. When Cathleen goes next and confesses feeling the need to be emotionally comforted and about her one-time sexual encounter with another nun, she refuses to give away the nun's name and only asks for penance. Mother Superior forces Cathleen to crawl on her hands and knees and to beg for penance from each of the other novices, which finally brings Cathleen to tears. Mother Superior grants penance to Cathleen anyway. Afterwards, Sister Emanuel leaves the convent without saying goodbye to Cathleen.

Eventually, Mother Superior calls the congregation and reads aloud the Archbishop's memo about Vatican II. Priests will say the Mass in English, and face the congregation. Catholics must embrace religious tolerance. Nuns are no longer required to wear habits and can wear whatever they wish as their status is now reduced and equal to any lay Catholic. Of the original twenty postulants, only five are left to profess their final vows to become solemnly professed nuns, among them is Cathleen. At their mass of Solemn Profession, the priest asks each of the novices, "What do you seek?" One answers that she wants to take her vows and marry Jesus Christ. The priest then asks Cathleen the same question. She answers, "I seek something more."[3][4][1]



Novitiate is writer-director Maggie Betts's feature film directorial debut; her last projects were the 2010 documentary The Carrier, and the 2014 short Engram.[3] In December 2015, it was announced that Melissa Leo, Dianna Agron, and Margaret Qualley had been cast in lead roles in the period drama film Novitiate, which would begin filming in January in Nashville, Tennessee.[5] Kat Westergaard was hired as the director of photography.[6] Novitiate marked the film scoring debut for composer Christopher Stark, who is an assistant professor of music at Washington University as of 2017. According to Stark, he had "about a week" to compose the score, the process of which "happen[ed] really fast".[7]


The film had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on January 20, 2017.[8] Shortly after, Sony Pictures Classics acquired U.S distribution rights to the film.[9] It was released on October 27, 2017.[10] Over ten weeks, the film grossed $580,346 at 163 North American theaters.[2]


Critical response

On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a score of 88% based on 88 reviews, and an average rating of 7.3/10. The website's consensus reads, "Led by a gripping performance from Melissa Leo, Novitiate grapples uncompromisingly  and ultimately compellingly  with questions of faith and feminism."[11] On Metacritic, it has an average score of 73/100 based on 30 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews."[12]


At Sundance Film Festival, the film was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize and Maggie Betts won the Special Jury Prize - Breakthrough Director award.[13] Betts was nominated for the Bingham Ray Breakthrough Director Award at the 2017 Gotham Independent Film Awards.[14]


  1. Lodge, Guy (January 20, 2017). "Sundance Film Review: 'Novitiate'". Variety. Penske Media Corporation. Retrieved August 4, 2017.
  2. "Novitiate (2017)". Box Office Mojo. Amazon. Retrieved February 20, 2018.
  3. Felperin, Leslie (January 21, 2017). "Novitiate: Film Review: Sundance 2017". The Hollywood Reporter. Eldridge Industries. Retrieved August 4, 2017.
  4. D'Angelo, Mike (October 25, 2017). "Melissa Leo's superb supporting performance should have been the center of Novitiate". The A.V. Club.
  5. Setoodeh, Ramin (December 4, 2015). "Melissa Leo, Dianna Agron to Star in Nun Drama 'Novitiate'". Variety. Retrieved December 29, 2016.
  6. Ridley, Jim (January 29, 2016). "Cool Cast and Crew, Mostly Women, Spark Interest in Indie Novitiate Shooting Here". Nashville Scene. Retrieved December 29, 2016.
  7. Wilson, Calvin (July 27, 2017). "2017 Rising Stars: Composer Christopher Stark writes his first score for upcoming 'Novitiate'". St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Archived from the original on February 20, 2018. Retrieved February 20, 2018.
  8. "Novitate". Sundance Film Festival. Retrieved January 22, 2017.
  9. Fleming Jr, Mike (January 22, 2017). "Sony Pictures Classics At Altar With 'Novitiate:' Sundance". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved January 22, 2017.
  10. Kenigsberg, Ben (September 8, 2017). "Fall 2017 Movie Release Schedule". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved November 1, 2017.
  11. "Novitiate (2017)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango. Retrieved April 29, 2018.
  12. "Novitiate Reviews". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved April 17, 2018.
  13. Patten, Dominic (January 28, 2017). "Sundance Film Festival Awards: 'I Don't Feel At Home In This World Anymore' & 'Dina' Take Grand Jury Prizes". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved November 24, 2017.
  14. Erbland, Kate (November 27, 2017). "Gotham Awards 2017: Complete Winners List". IndieWire. Retrieved November 28, 2017.
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