Novitiate: Polishing the lens on religion, love, and amplifying the silence of women in film.

“Silence is a metaphor for a cleansed, non-interfering vision…unresponsive before being seen.” (Susan Sontag,The Aesthetics of Silence)

Margaret Qualley as Sister Cathleen in ‘Novitiate’. Courtesy IMDB/Sony Pictures Classics (2017).
“We were women in love.”

Love is a mystical premise. Its weight and eminence in film is often displayed by jarring bouts of emotional display — I see, in no shortage, men and women alike falling headfirst into a “first love” or an all-consuming love that is identified immediately as a separate experience from every other moment in their fictional lives. Of course, capturing such an aspect of the human experience must be difficult, particularly when it feels like every story has already been told ten times over. Novitiate is a rare movie that is both ambitious and successful in its retelling of an important moment in Catholicism’s modern history, particularly in the role of women as members of this community.

The strength of the cast’s talent and chemistry is delivered in spades. Margaret Qualley, Melissa Leo, Julianne Nicholson, Rebecca Dayan, and Dianna Agron to name a few — their collective work in the frame of a thought-provoking script offer a lot to dissect.

I had the joy and privilege of watching Novitiate at TIFF this past month. It was an enriching movie and beautifully crafted. Though set in the historical backdrop of the 1960s Vatican reform, the movie artfully masters its way around the arduous task of telling the story of young, impressionable women seeking passion, shelter, and love in God. The recognizable (to myself, at least) religious rhetoric is portrayed through every aspect in this film, leaning heavily on impressive cinematography and musical accompaniment (an impressive score by Christopher Stark) to cast the always present shadow of God. Choosing structured and disciplined religion as a vehicle to transport a coming-of-age story across the chasm of the film is an intelligent choice. To borrow from bell hooks’ chapter on “Feminist Spirituality” in Feminism is For Everybody, the film does its job at enhancing the idea that women are able to find a “place of solace and sanctuary” in religious practice (105). Further, the decision to minimize male figures in a movie about a religion that is primarily guarded by men creates an atmosphere that feels more reverent than if it had been done otherwise as finding this place for themselves, women “can be with god without the intervention of men” and “can serve the divine without male domination” (105).

The two opposing ‘mother’ figures and the central character’s relationship with both offer insight into the role of structured religion and shaping womanhood. While on one end, Cathleen does not seem to actively seek comfort from her biological mother perhaps due to the heaviness of her childhood, she relies on the nuns around her — as well as Reverend Mother later on — for guidance in her formative years. Cathleen does not give voice to some of her fears, concerns, and worries until much later in the film, though she does share some of her feelings with God, conveyed through intimacy and devotion to which the audience is privy.

Reverence is emphasized through silence, prayer, and the consistent displays of feminine aesthetics in the film.

I was very interested in the work that director/writer Maggie Betts has set out to do for us here. The story she told — the one set in a seemingly distant past is finely tuned to the needs of women in cinema today and an homage to the women in cinema of days gone by. The silencing of women is often forced due to the practice of reducing a woman’s voice to serve as a platter for a romantic storyline. In an arena that often enhances the silence of women, Betts artfully weaves a tale of reverence and love through a talented cast. The novitiates find strength, comfort, and solidarity through contemplative silences — also quite literally through “Grand Silence” which is imposed on them by Reverend Mother. In “The Aesthetics of Silence”, Susan Sontag contemplates the role of silence, silencing, and lack of ‘content’ so to speak in art. In Novitiate, where women are figuratively and literally silent across various moments brings up an interesting question of whether the artist (in this case, Betts) is tasked with “opening up new areas and objects of attention” (13). I found the film to be very compelling in this aspect as it then moved on to rely on music and other atmospheric techniques to represent the voiceless whether in moments of prayer, hesitation, or sleep.

Growing up Catholic has always been a memory I’ve tucked into my back pocket. It was fairly easy to conjure up the memory of attending a Catholic high school where I could easily contemplate the mysterious shroud surrounding God and his presence in our lives. God is a silent entity — his silence manifests in repeated questions from the characters in the show to no avail. God’s ‘silence’ in wake of their questions help the audience ground themselves in the characters’ pain, sorrow, and isolation, beautifully captured by Qualley’s Cathleen, Agron’s gentle Mary Grace, and of course Leo’s heavy portrayal of Reverend Mother. This is perhaps best explained through Sontag’s description of silence in art and how it sketches “out new prescriptions for looking, hearing, etc.” helping shape “a more immediate, sensuous experience of art” to allow us to “confront the artwork in a more conscious, conceptual way” (13). This framework of understanding this movie is a fantastic reflection of the Catholicism I remember. It was about being ‘taught’ to appreciate the quiet moments and the moments where we become aware of the thoughts that plague our minds, searching for a Truth and nurturing ourselves with the dregs of fleeting hope.

The beauty of this film rests in the way it changes the way we see — or perhaps the way we look and gaze upon the characters, to borrow from Sontag and Laura Mulvey simultaneously. Mimicking the mystery that surrounds God, the shroud of mystery that permeates the essence of the film only serves to enhance the experience. Though, it is a question of which experience stands out the most. Is it Cathleen’s seemingly boundless quest to acquire some deep-rooted feelings of love, understanding, and belonging through her relationship with God — and ultimately coming to terms with her own true feelings? Or perhaps it is Reverend Mother’s constant call for an answer, shouting out in the void. It might even be a question of reconciling sexuality and religion, as evidenced by the sweet and gentle Mary Grace (Agron). While they appear stark in their differences, the experiences detailed through the film represent the human experience as we know it, holding up the mirror to our society, highlighting the ways in which religion can and has shaped feminine expectations; a mirror where silence can speak to truths we sometimes cannot bring ourselves to say aloud.


hooks, bell. Feminism is for everybody: passionate politics. Cambridge, South End Press, 2000.

Sontag, Susan. “The Aesthetics of Silence”. Styles of radical will. London, Penguin Books, 2009.

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