I’m not religious, but I’ve always had a great respect for those who are. Whether it be in the dedication of Buddhist monks, Catholic nuns, or even down just to the casual donning of religiously affiliated apparel such as yarmulkes, hijabs and other related coverings, etc. This is why something like “Novitiate” hooked me from the start, as it looked to give an insight into the world of Catholic nuns and the world they inhabit. Before this, the only real look inside the world of nuns was that of “Sister Act,” and even I knew not to take that at anything but an entertainment-based value. Religious observance is common, but religious dedication is a rarity of character, and being able to look inside those who do choose to go that route is already more interesting than most films from the get-go.
Set in 1964, the film follows Cathleen Harris (Margaret Qualley), a 17-year-old young woman who, despite her agnostic mother (Julianne Nicholson), chooses to dedicate her life to Jesus and become a nun of the Catholic church. Cathleen attended Catholic school as a child for a better education than the public schools of her surrounding area, but her mother placed an expectation on her to remain agnostic. This decision shocks her mother, but Cathleen is soon swept away to a local convent as a postulant under the guise of the Reverend Mother Marie St. Clair (Melissa Leo), a cold and tough leader of the convent, enforcing strict order to the conservative ways of nuns. During this time, the Reverend Mother struggles with coming to grips with the decisions made by the church during the Vatican II summit, which relaxed the rules placed on nuns in the church, which she vehemently rejects and attempts to keep from her own convent. All the while, Cathleen and the postulants go through the test of their lives under Reverend Mother’s reign over them.
“Novitiate” can be uttered in the same breath as “Whiplash,” in that they not only are both Sundance Film Festival films picked up for distribution by Sony Pictures Classics, but they detail how far someone is willing to go, and what they are willing to put up with to achieve the dream they so easily picture in their heads. Though, unlike “Whiplash,” this is not a film that deals with a sort of dream, but of a dedication to an ideal, to something these girls have worshipped their whole lives for, and are faced with the choice of whether or not their faith truly does take them to the extremes of their beings or not.
That being said, “Novitiate” is not an exploitative film in any real regard, in fact, it’s very serene and quite beautiful in execution. This is all thanks to Maggie Betts’ succinct and delicate hand in crafting the film. There are a lot of elements of “Novitiate” that could be construed in much darker tones than they are here, such as dehumanizing the Reverend Mother, or playing up the claustrophobic nature of the convent, etc. Betts’ rather approaches the story as a more complicated version of a typical coming-of-age for Cathleen and the girls surrounding her. They are young girls, looking for more in their life, with many coming to the conclusions that the life of a nun just doesn’t fit with their idea of curiosity with the world. Betts really finds a way in portraying this in subtle and unique ways that many directors would not be able to capture in as quiet or intimate of circumstances as she does here, including the issue of many of the girls’ burgeoning sexualities meant to be suppressed in the environment they are entering before they could even know what was to be suppressed.
Performances in “Novitiate” are strong all-around, but of course much of the buzz of the film surrounds that of Leo as the cruel Reverend Mother, who I found, while cold and cruel at times, to be quite humanized thanks to the gaze placed upon her by Betts. There are moments where you get a real sense of the desperation that she’s going through, which Leo captures near perfectly in her performance. Leo has always been known to be a fiery and peculiar actress, and we do get a lot of that fire here in “Novitiate,” but we also get much more intimate scenes of real vulnerability from the actress, scenes that don’t feel like desperate pleas to recognize the character as human, but as actual gazes inside the Reverend Mother’s mind and the struggles she too faces from her intense love of not only Jesus, but of the church in which she pledges her devotion.
And I think that’s where “Novitiate” shines the most, in its balance of faith-based drama, coming-of-age story and psychological thriller. Not all of these are balanced equally in a 33% range, but instead find themselves fluctuating with the needs of the story at any given time. Some have called “Novitiate” anti-Catholic, with the Catholic League going so far to condemn the film before its release, but I would almost say that the film does a good job to paint the church and the faith of its followers in a good light. It’s easy to see the trailer for the film and assume the film is a sweeping critique on the system of the church due to the actions of one cruel leader in it, but in fact, “Novitiate” is a touching and genuine look at the power of faith and the role it plays in growing up, making decisions on life and survival as a human, and the many different ways people interpret it for their best interest.
“Novitiate” is a bit of a slow watch, but it’s an entirely gratifying one that really finds its stride in not only Leo’s strong performance in the film, but in that of painting a unique coming-of-age story in a way I haven’t seen anyone do in a while. Betts finds a way in paving a truly feministic approach to female faith and the difference between willful submission and suppression within any certain faith. It’s a touchy topic that the filmmaker does beautifully, with a real sense of humanity to even the most inhumane of aspects of the film. It takes a bit of time to get to its point, but the scenes filling the film paint a grand, yet intimate picture of womanhood in the 1960s, changes in faith structures and the strength of the human will when it comes to that of faith. It’s a compelling, yet entirely grounding watch.
Directed by: Maggie Betts
Starring: Margaret Qualley, Julianne Nicholson, Dianna Agron, Morgan Saylor, Maddie Hasson, Liana Liberato, Rebecca Daylan, Eline Powell, Chelsea Lopez, Denis O’Hare, Chris Zylka, and Melissa Leo.
Runtime: 123 minutes.
Rating: R for language, some sexuality and nudity.
Now playing exclusively at Regal Park Terrace & Stonecrest at Piper Glen.
Sony Pictures Classics presents, a Maven Pictures production, “Novitiate”