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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz


Nun stories: from nonsensical to transcendent

Gerald Schmitz


The Little Hours (Canada-U.S. 2017)
Novitiate (U.S. 2017)
The Passion of Augustine (Canada 2015)

Portrayals of Catholic sisters in the movies often run to caricature, though there are classic exceptions such as The Nun’s Story (1959) with Audrey Hepburn in the title role. Nuns on screen can be benign characters in funny habits, of the singing or flying variety, or forbidding authoritarian scolds like the fearsome school principal played by Meryl Streep in Doubt (2008). Deeper portrayals of the women drawn to a religious vocation and why are rare.

The 2017 Sundance Film Festival presented several features involving nuns that could hardly be more contrasting. One, Novitiate, was outstanding and had its international premiere at the Toronto film festival. However, I’ll start with the nonsensical one because it’s already had a significant summertime release in Canada.

The Little Hours premiered in the “Midnight” program, one I usually avoid given its predilection for horror and/or camp (as well as being unable to stay awake so late). Still, the film had attracted considerable attention for its ribald satire of a 14th-century Italian convent ostensibly drawing on Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron. Denunciation as “pure trash” by the Catholic League is used for promotional publicity. How bad could it be?

Writer-director Jeff Baena conjures up a trio of young nuns stuck in the convent for reasons that have nothing to do with faith or piety. Sister Allesandra (Alison Brie) is only there because her rich father won’t provide a dowry. Sister Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza, who plays a crazed Instagram stalker in another Sundance selection, Ingrid Goes West) indulges in a wild side that includes sneaking out to cavort with a village friend in a witches’ coven in the woods. Sister Ginerva (Kate Micucci) can’t help sticking her nose in everything and getting drawn into that circle of deviance.

Baena actually has a university background in medieval studies but he opts to up the absurdity level of these misfit nuns by having them chatter and swear like bored American teenagers. Ineffectual adult supervision, which an episcopal visit does little improve, is provided by a sweet older nun, Sister Marea (Molly Shannon), and alcoholic priest, Father Tommasso (John C Reilly), who are mutually breaking their vows of chastity.

What brings the convent to a sexual boil is the arrival of an attractive young man, Massetto (played by Brie’s husband Dave Franco), a servant seeking refuge when running for his life from a nearby castle after being discovered with the wife of its master and cuckolded husband Lord Bruno (Nick Offerman). Father Tommasso takes on Massetto as a handyman who pretends to be a deaf-mute until serial temptations overcome that ruse.

While the raunchy comedy of The Little Hours is deliberately transgressive, even blasphemous, I didn’t find it serious or mean enough to be really offensive. The film has been positively reviewed and defended as genuinely funny in the Jesuit magazine America, with Rev. Eric Sundrup writing that it “is actually better than most of the sentimental schlock sanitized for church consumption.” Sister Rose Pacatte of the National Catholic Reporter is more dismissive, concluding there’s “nothing to recommend.” Still, she admits to laughing in some places. I couldn’t help doing so too. But stay away if you are more easily outraged than bemused.

NOVITIATE — Margaret Qualley stars in Novitiate, a film from first-time director Margaret Betts, who received a special jury award as “breakthrough director” at the Sundance Film Festival last January. Sony Pictures Classics

Moving on to a nun’s story much more worthy of attention is the Sundance dramatic competition feature Novitiate from first-time director Margaret Betts, who received a special jury award as “breakthrough director.”

Novitiate begins in 1964 in a fictional Tennessee convent belonging to the Sisters of the Blessed Rose, which an earnest 17-year-old, Cathleen Harris (Margaret Qualley), has decided to enter as a postulant. It is a turbulent time as the reforms of the Second Vatican Council take hold and many sisters and priests will leave the religious life. In an increasingly secular age, what motivates a young woman to enter the religious life?

Cathleen is the narrator of her unusual story. Explaining the impetus for her developing vocation and convent preparation, she says: “What they (those doubting her choice) don’t understand is that beneath everything we were women in love.” She means of course a deep fulfilling love for Jesus as Saviour. In Cathleen’s case it is certainly not the result of a religious upbringing; more likely a reaction against a fractious childhood in which her parents fought and her skeptical mother Nora (Julianne Nicholson) always regarded religion as “a waste of time.”

While Cathleen gets a scholarship to a Catholic school and thrives there, Nora’s marriage ends and she moves on to a series of boyfriends. She calls Cathleen “crazy” for choosing to enter a convent, trying to dissuade her, to no avail, as the devout daughter feels called to becoming a “bride of Christ.”

Cathleen’s search for religious intimacy and inner peace is not unquestioning or untroubled. How can we be sure what God wants of us? “Where are you?” she prays in silent meditation. Her six months of training with other postulants are also complicated by the rigid discipline imposed by the abbess, Rev. Mother Marie St. Claire (Melissa Leo), who has not left the convent gates in 40 years. The Mother Superior rules as if “the voice of God,” brooking no challenges to her authority. She also has no time for Vatican II reforms, ignoring and concealing them because “the church is perfect the way it is.”

Cathleen submits to the demanding regimen that includes a “grand silence” from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Visits with her mother take place behind a metal grate, on one occasion bringing news of her father’s death. She perseveres through a gruelling trial period to take first vows dressed as a bride. At the same time the convent is headed for a traumatic turn. Mother Marie cannot shut out the spirit blowing the winds of change. Her obstinacy provokes the archdiocese and causes a younger nun, Sister Mary Grace (Dianna Agron), who is director of postulants, to leave the convent. Ordered by the archbishop (Denis O’Hare) to inform the nuns about Vatican II and to stop the use of antiquated punishments, Mother Marie breaks down and reveals herself to be a frightened vulnerable woman in need of comfort as the verities underpinning her sense of power and purpose crumble. The nun who has made it her mission to severely test others is herself mightily tested.

The turmoil that comes to the convent is matched by that which Cathleen experiences as she reacts physically to a dearth of human affection (denying herself food) and wrestles with uneasy feelings.

The culmination of the novitiate comes down to deciding about her life direction beyond the opposite pressures from her mother and the mother superior. It isn’t about them or their flaws. Cathleen is testing herself, no longer sure of what she wants or of what God wants. As she is among five novices at the altar to take final vows, her turn comes. “I seek,” she hesitates, “I seek something more.”

This is a brilliant compelling film that tackles its religious subject with admirable seriousness and sensitivity. The performances by Qualley and Leo are also exceptional. (Leo excels at portraying strong-willed women in fraught situations. By coincidental contrast she plays the notorious atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair in the 2017 Netflix movie The Most Hated Woman in America.)

Novitiate is scheduled for theatrical release by Sony Pictures Classics on Oct. 27.

Quebec director Léa Pool’s award-winning The Passion of Augustine also centres on a convent during the Vatican II era. In mid-August it received a nationwide U.S. video-on-demand release through the distributing platforms Under the Milky Way and Solaris. Simone Beaulieu (Céline Bonnier) has both a talent for the piano and a religious vocation. She enters a small rural convent and eventually becomes its superior as Mother Augustine during an era when the Catholic Church and religious orders were a dominant force in education. The convent sisters run an all-girls boarding school in which Augustine ensures that music has a central role. She has students who win prizes in piano competitions.

Then along with the church and state upheavals of Vatican II and the Quiet Revolution comes the arrival in 1965 of Augustine’s headstrong teenage niece, Alice (Lysandre Ménard), who is a piano prodigy. The transformations are more than some of the nuns can accept. The school is threatened with closure as the provincial government moves to take control of the education system. Alice’s bright prospects and challenging attitude toward authority make Augustine reflect on her own musical passions and religious path. What is their future in a fast-changing society? Is she also seeking something more?