Director: Margaret Betts
Cast: Margaret Qualley, Melissa Leo, Julianne Nicholson, Dianna Agron, Liana Liberato, Eline Powell, Morgan Saylor, Maddie Hasson, Ashley Bell, Rebecca Dayan, Chelsea Lopez, Denis O'Hare
MPAA Rating: (for language, some sexuality and nudity)
Running Time: 2:03
Release Date: 10/27/17 (limited); 11/3/17 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | November 2, 2017
The inner lives and spiritual struggles of Catholic nuns are examined in Novitiate. The film is set during the time of the Second Vatican Council, as major changes to the Church are being discussed in Rome—far from the ears and influence of the members of an isolated convent in the United States. They don't know what, if anything, is in store for them.
Writer/director Margaret Betts offers a breakdown of the complex reaction to the pronouncements of Vatican II in the film's last act, but until then, she is concerned with the complexities of living as or striving to become a nun. There's a level of respect for the calling, but it's not presented without some important observations that question the motives of these women. Betts doesn't judge those motives, though. It's not as simple as that. The film does not doubt the sincerity of these women, in their belief of possessing or their aspiration of seeking a special relationship with God, but it also understands that these women are, first and foremost, human.
They doubt. They question. They look for evidence that isn't tangible, because there is no way that it could be.
Most of the main characters are young women, primarily aged between 17 and 18. They are hardly of an age to comprehend the ways of the world, yet they have made a decision to cloister themselves from it. It's supposed to be a lifelong vow to live this life in prayer and devotion. That life is not compulsory, of course, but for these young women, it might as well be, considering their circumstances and/or their beliefs.
The central character is Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), who was raised by her agnostic mother Nora (Julianne Nicholson). At the age of 7, Cathleen attends a Catholic mass, since her mother thinks it's about time that the daughter gets an impression of what religion is all about. Afterwards, Nora is forthright: She doesn't believe in this stuff, but when Cathleen is old enough to make a decision for herself, it will be up to her to determine her own beliefs.
A couple of nuns come by the house, from which Cathleen's father since has left after a few too many fights. There's a nearby parochial school that's run by the nuns' order, and they're offering full scholarships.
The pre-teen Cathleen (played by Sasha Mason) is a bit of a loner at the school. All of the other girls talk about their boyfriends, and she doesn't have one. A kindly nun sympathizes with her isolation, says she was just like Cathleen when she was the girl's age, and explains that, as a nun, she is married to God. Cathleen begins spending her downtime in the school's chapel, praying and staring at the open arms of a statue of Jesus. When she's 17, she announces to her mother that she wants to pursue a religious life as a nun. She loves God in a way that only a nun—and never her mother—could comprehend.
The story, which follows Cathleen and her sisters in religious devotion as they train to be nuns (first as postulants and later, after taking 18-month vows, as novitiates), is about the rigorous schedule, the difficult introspection, and the strange sense of isolation of being a nun in the pre-Vatican II era. That isolation is especially peculiar, considering that the candidates are surrounded by their like-minded peers: All of whom have romantic or pragmatic reasons for entering the convent (One saw Audrey Hepburn play a nun in a movie, and another just assumes that the youngest daughter of a Catholic family is supposed to become a nun). That separation from each other, though, is the order of the convent's abbess (played by Melissa Leo), who insists that the nuns refer to her as "Reverend Mother" or simply "Mother" and who declares that she is the voice of God within the convent.
The abbess is the only character who can see what's coming from the Vatican, and she is unhappy with the rumors and even more distraught by the final changes. Leo's performance is exceptional in the way she toes the line between the abbess' strict devotion to this way of life and the possible exploitation of the unchecked power of her position.
The abbess' role is either one of total sacrifice, abandoning any worldly compassion in order to enrich the spiritual path of the nuns, or of complete ego, using her position to fill a void that she comes to feel as the Church changes its ways. From the point of view of the young women, we can look at the abbess as the film's antagonist, but Betts and Leo also provide a certain degree of tragedy to the character—a woman who has spent her life in a specific way, convinced that the sacrifice is worth it, only to have everything torn from her without any say in the matter.
There's some tragedy to the other characters, too, most notably in the way that they are young women—with desires and urges that have nothing to do with a life of religious dedication (They celebrate their temporary vows by dancing around a fire while chanting "We're married!"). The easy answer, of course, is for them to abandon this pursuit, but that is not an option for them, either because of, in the case of Cathleen, a genuine belief in this way of life or because of unseen pressures from the world outside the convent. Qualley's performance gets to the heart of this conflict between natural longings and commitment to something beyond those things.
Betts' portrayal of this life is pointedly critical but decidedly compassionate. Novitiate doesn't want simply to understand this level of devotion to a religious ideal. The film, like its characters, is considering the benefits of searching for that higher purpose against what could be lost in the search.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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