Why A Movie About Cloistered Nuns In The 1960s Feels So Relevant In 2017

Photo: Courtesy of Sony Pictures.
Making a lifelong commitment to god which involves abstinence, unquestioning obedience, and a habit isn't exactly a relatable experience for most people in 2017. And yet, nuns are having a pop culture comeback.
Novitiate, Maggie Betts' moving drama about a young woman's emotional journey to take her vows as the Catholic Church is rocked by the aftershocks of Vatican II reforms, is the latest in a series of nun-focused projects that have been released this year. As Anna Silman pointed out over at The Cut, it started in January with The Young Pope, which featured Diane Keaton as Jude Law's advisory nun-in-chief, followed by the The Keepers, Netflix's Making A Murderer-style documentary about the 1969 murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik, and The Little Hours, a raunchy comedy about 14th century nuns starring Aubrey Plaza, Alison Brie, and Kate Miccuci.
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What makes Novitiate stand out, however, is the fact that out of all the projects listed above, it's the only one written and directed by a woman, at the helm of an almost-all female cast and crew.
As a result, the film takes a good look a diverse group of women who have chosen this specific life. There's young novitiate Sister Cathleen (Margaret), a young woman living in rural Tennessee who, at 17, feels called to serve god as a nun; the indomitable Revered Mother of the Sisters Of The Blessed Rose (Melissa Leo), who, after 40 years in a cloistered convent, is having to contend with the new realities of Vatican II, which, along with a number of other reforms aimed at making the Church more accessible to the faithful, reduced the status of nuns to that of any old practicing Catholic; Sister Mary Grace (Dianna Agron), the nun in charge of training the new novices who finds that she is questioning her place in the convent.
And then there are the forces pushing against them: Nora Harris (Julianne Nicholson), Cathleen's mother who just can't understand why a young woman with no religious background would choose to give up sex before she's even had it; and surprisingly, the Church establishment itself, presented as the main antagonist bent on disturbing the convent's traditional way of life.
I know what you're thinking: That's all well and good, but what does a story about a group of nuns navigating faith, desire, love, friendship, and change in 1964 have to do with a modern women's experience?
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"It's this story that keeps playing itself out," Julianne Nicholson said in an interview with Refinery29. "These cloistered nuns [are] living by these rules, and living this life for all these years, and some group of men somewhere else just make the decision that none of that was worthwhile anymore."
That theme echoes the struggles women in this country are currently experiencing, as a mostly male Congress constantly re-examines and restricts their right to choose. "It feels completely of the time, and of the human experience," Nicholson added. "We've got these men over in the corner deciding how we're going to live our lives."
The notion of choice is especially important in this context. For a long time, choosing to take vows as a nun was a way for women to escape the conveyer belt path of marriage and children, all while remaining within the bounds of polite society. In a time where a woman was owned by her father and then her husband, nuns held a certain amount of control and agency over their futures. In Novitiate, for example, Nicholson's character is worried that her daughter, Cathleen, is giving up her freedom by pursuing a religious life. But in a way, Cathleen would enjoy certain freedoms as a nun that her mother, as a single mother in the 1950s and early 1960s, could not. Namely, the choice to become a nun in the first place.
"It's another version of feminism," Nicholson explained. "These women have — for different reasons, and to different degrees — made the decision for themselves, taken the choice of what their life was going to look like, and gone to this place. It's very powerful to have that control of your life. That's not how it was for women in that time."
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The struggle to have and maintain control over your own life is a story that will always feel relevant to women — whether they're wearing a habit or not.
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