Written and directed by Maggie Betts and featuring Margaret Qualley, Melissa Leo, Julianne Nicholson, and Dianna Agron.
Sony Pictures Classics, 2017, 123 minutes
You have to be around sixty-years-old or older to remember pre-Vatican II, militant Catholicism. This film brought back memories.
Plot (spoiler alert!)
Young Cathleen experiences very little love in her broken home, but she is awarded a scholarship to a Catholic school for girls and is intrigued by the nuns who teach her. To the absolute chagrin of her “freespirited” mother (Nicholson), Cathleen (Qualley) decides to enter the convent of the Sisters of the Blessed Rose in 1964 at the age of seventeen. She is attracted by the nuns’ close-knit community, disciplined lifestyle, and intense “spirituality.” However, Cathleen’s fanciful conception of convent life meets cold reality like a hard slap across the face in the person of Reverend Mother (Leo), who rules the institution with an iron fist. Cathleen and the other novices must endure harsh and humiliating treatment and adhere to a thick catalog of rules and regulations for the opportunity of becoming a full-fledged nun. Many drop away or are deemed unsuitable and dismissed. The remaining young women have a sympathetic ally in one young nun, sister Mary Grace (Agron), who chafes under the boot of Reverend Mother, but the old war horse has her own problems.
The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) is ushering in many reforms of church practices and rules governing religious orders and Reverend Mother is none too pleased with this threat to her fiefdom. She resists the changes as long as possible while venting her frustration on her charges. Cathleen struggles to endure her training and even starves herself into the infirmary in an attempt to master her spiritual failings. Under orders from the archbishop, Reverend Mother can no longer forestall the Vatican II reforms and reluctantly notifies the sisters of the changes. Horrified by the unsettling news, many nuns leave the convent and return to the secular world. Only a small handful of novices remain, and on the day they take their “final vows” to become full-fledged nuns, Cathleen decides to leave the convent.
Boy, did this film bring back memories. I attended Catholic parochial school from 1961 to 1970 and personally witnessed the last stages of militant, pre-Vatican II Catholicism and then the dramatic window-dressing changes of Vatican II. I can remember all the nuns who taught me quite vividly. Some were kind and some were very troubled souls who released their anger on us children. Those poor women were attempting to merit their way to Heaven by living ascetic lives according to the strict rules of their order, the Sisters of Mercy. We talk about religious cults, but was there anything more cultish than a group of women living together as the brides of Christ replete with wedding rings and dressed in 11th century garb? As the movie shows, these women had to endure great hardship and humiliation. Many forms of self-mortification were encouraged. This movie alludes to lesbian relationships inside the convent, what real-life nuns termed as “particular friendships.” This is a sensitive topic, but lesbianism was a very real issue in convents, where women, young and old, were deprived of natural affections. As an eighth-grade student, I witnessed signs of a “particular friendship” between my homeroom teacher and another nun.
This was a good film, but a painful one to watch because of the memories. As a child, I witnessed first-hand the type of vicious cruelty doled out by the film’s Reverend Mother. Being the target of a nun’s hissy fit was painful. Melissa Leo is excellent in the role of convent despot.
Additional comments from an ex-Catholic believer
Catholicism changed its window dressing with Vatican II, but it still preaches the same core doctrines and the same false gospel of salvation by sacramental grace and merit. All of these poor nuns attempted to earn their salvation through severe asceticism, but Catholics still try to merit their salvation as they are instructed by their church. At the end of the film, it states that, following the changes of Vatican II, “90,000 nuns renounced their vocations and left their convents.” My hope is that some of them eventually trusted in Jesus Christ as Savior by faith alone. There are relatively very few nuns in the U.S. today; the number dropped from 180,000 in 1965 to 50,000 in 2014 and the majority of those that remain are elderly.
For the testimonies of 20 former nuns who left Catholicism and accepted Jesus Christ as Savior, see here.