Written and Directed by Margaret Betts.
Starring Margaret Qualley, Julianne Nicholson, Dianna Agron, Liana Liberato, Denis O’Hare, Eline Powell, Morgan Saylor, Maddie Hasson, Ashley Bell, Chelsea Lopez, Rebecca Dayan, Chris Zylka, and Melissa Leo.
Set in the early 1960s and during the era of Vatican II, a young woman in training to become a nun struggles with issues of faith, the changing church and sexuality
In the 1960s, as a young 12-year old girl Cathleen (later played by Margaret Qualley as a teenager in a multilayered, quiet, and moving performance) is taken to Catholic church for the first time by her lovingly flawed mother Nora (Julianne Nicholson), and going against typical child beliefs, she states she enjoyed it. “It was peaceful”. This is a stark contrast to her home life where it’s quickly made clear that mommy and daddy are constantly verbally fighting, prompting him to double down on his negligence and walk away from the family altogether. As Cathleen gradually grows more infatuated with God she decides to test her dedication to Him by enrolling the strict and unforgiving training process to become a nun.
Although there are many other similarly ages girls by her side in the Convent, this is Cathleen’s story, spirituality seeking out who she is at a time when the Pope was shaking up the rules on both what it means to be a nun and putting forth motions to abandon emotionally and physically abusive practices as methods of punishment. Rather unsettlingly, all the young women seem to be here as a result of unhappy lives outside the church, choosing to push themselves to a mental and tangible breaking point to prove their worthiness of being loved by and married to God; they’re seeking His affection so they can finally feel appreciated with life purpose. Meanwhile, the traditional and stereotypical elderly nuns seem just as lost under their authoritative surface. All of this juxtaposed with the peaceful state of the Convent, making prayer and solitude among such pain as ethereal as the hymns in mass.
However, they’re not just cardboard cutout characters, the strongest aspect of Novitiate (the feature debut from writer and director Margaret Betts) is that everyone feels real and genuine, even veteran actress Melissa Leo’s Reverend Mother who refuses to accept change. It’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to earn a meaningful connection with God when being forced to recite Hail Marys while crawling around the floor, all for accidentally speaking when Grand Silence (a period from evening until morning where no one is allowed to speak and must utilize the sign language gestures they are taught), but bizarrely understandable. It’s stated that there are two types of silence, and Novitiate finds subtext without the need for extensive dialogue. Anyway, if anything, the impending new Vatican era that will nullify much of Reverend Mother’s accomplishments causes her to punish harder from being enraged.
Agree or disagree, she questions why none of the nuns weren’t asked for their opinions on the reformation, which adds another layer to the narrative as these women shouldn’t have to have their thoughts muted. In a way, that’s what they’re choosing by giving up their life (social pleasures, romance, prospects of future children), but it’s a moment that elevates Mother Reverend beyond the tortuous nun that’s the stuff of nightmares. Cathleen is the one who truly struggles though, not even aware of what’s coming but fighting back natural intimate desires (usually failing as she frequently masturbates at night in bed) with her peers. Her response to this is nothing short of sad and makes us desperately want her concerned mother to somehow free her.
There’s a terrific ensemble cast and strong period piece work (especially costume work of the wedding dresses representing marriage to God) at play in Novitiate, not just from outside and all around the inside of the Convent, but also normal 1960s life as it’s briefly depicted. Thrusting Cathleen into the harsh environment of religious servitude makes her coming-of-age arc vastly more complex than the average teenage girl, and Margaret Qualley superbly expresses that with repressed and isolated behavior. Still, it’s Melissa Leo’s angry and showy turn that could go far in the upcoming awards season. Regardless, Novitiate is a moving look at broken souls seeking love in archaic religious times.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com