Film on nuns exposes dilemma of church

Parallels can be drawn between a movie exploring the implications of the Second Vatican Council on nuns and how Catholic anti-communist dissidents have been betrayed by a Holy See tilting towards Beijing

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 March, 2018, 1:48am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 March, 2018, 2:17am

Every now and then, a movie comes along that makes you wonder about meaning, purpose, life itself. Novitiate, by a brilliant filmmaker Maggie Betts, is such a movie. Someone took me to see it, with much resistance from me. Who wants to watch a movie about Catholic nuns, or rather young girls preparing to become nuns?

It turns out to be highly educational, and not only that. The movie, set in a 1960s American convent, has a political subtext in that it explores the implications of the Second Vatican Council on Catholic women in general and nuns in particular.

I have already been writing about Vatican II in this space because retired cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun and his yellow-ribbon supporters have been citing its doctrine that only the Vatican has the right to appoint bishops in their opposition to rapprochement between China and the Holy See. Don’t they know the party line in Rome has changed?

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The movie follows the joy, anguish and self-doubts of the novices as they train under the tyrannical Sister Marie, the alpha nun and Reverend Mother, who equates her commands with the word of God. She quietly encourages some novices to self-flagellate themselves, even though the practice has been banned by the church. She implicitly encourages anorexia by praising the main character who starves herself “for Christ”.

She makes everyone kneel for hours in a circle to confess their sins and darkest secrets one by one, a routine that would even make hardcore Maoist Red Guards blush. She takes out her frustrations with one of the girls by making her crawl like a dog.

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But the Reverend Mother isn’t just frustrated; she has been devastated as she watches her whole world and lifelong beliefs and devotion collapse. According to the movie, nuns are no longer considered special – such as being “the brides of Christ” – any more than the laity under Vatican II. Priests, of course, get to preserve their special status. Actually, Vatican II cuts both ways: some nuns found its liberalising doctrines freed them to leave their convents and engage in social justice causes.

Maybe it’s the onset of middle age or I’m just a fellow sadist, but I find Sister Marie more interesting than those nubile novices, even with an explicit lesbian scene. As I watch Marie, I imagine our own Catholic anti-communist dissidents must feel the same way being betrayed by a Vatican tilting towards Beijing.