Leo and Qualley shine during a dim view of the ‘Novitiate’
Written/directed by: Margaret Betts
Starring: Margaret Qualley, Melissa Leo, Julianne Nicholson, Dianna Agron, and Rebecca Dayan
“Novitiate” – Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) is 17 years old and in love. She is in love with God. Conversely, her mom, Nora (Julianne Nicholson), never embraced religion and does not quite understand her daughter’s love and faith. Soon, everything that Nora knows - her own faith in a sense – becomes severely tested. Cathleen joins a convent, Sisters of Beloved Rose, to become a nun, and Nora believes that she is too young to make this decision.
Faith and coming-of-age rise as the two primary themes in writer/director Margaret Betts’s picture that steps inside an unknown world to a vast majority of audiences. In 1964, this isolated and insulated place lives by its own sacred laws and teachings, in a rigorous and tireless pursuit to transform women into perfect beings, ones who are worthy to devote their lives to God, the Church and Christ.
Since human beings are inherently and painfully imperfect, this quest is ultimately impossible, but there is a certain nobility in becoming the best that one can be. During the picture, Cathleen’s personal, principled journey ironically feels like she steps into U.S. Marine Corps boot camp. Instead of becoming trained killer – as described by Gny. Sgt. Hartman (R. Lee Emery) in “Full Metal Jacket” (1987) – she hopes to become just the opposite. A vehicle to teach and spread God’s love. The process, however, feels the same.
Reverend Mother Marie St. Clair (Melissa Leo) – who has lived at Beloved Rose for 40 years - runs the operation. Although the Reverend Mother represents the word of God, she shows no warmth towards longstanding nuns and the young upstarts. She demands that her rules be followed without exception, including “grand silence”, which means that no one on the grounds - not even her - can speak during specific hours of the day. Betts repeatedly shows nuns walking in silence with their eyes pointing downward on the lovely, pristine campus, and during breakfast - in a cafeteria which looks like a smaller version of Hogwarts’s dining hall – one can only hear forks, knives and spoons gently clanging against plates and bowls.
Silence is one challenge, but it pales in comparison to the 18-month rigor of the novitiate, the time in which the transformation occurs. The Reverend Mother and other nuns keep the novitiate’s secrets private until Cathleen and the others experience it for themselves, and Betts offers windows into the women’s deepest thoughts, and many times, these reveals will greatly surprise. For the Reverend Mother, she has heard these spoken thoughts hundreds and hundreds of times, and during the novitiate, Leo’s performance surprises as well. Sometimes she portrays the Reverend Mother as very engaged and active in dispelling imperfections in her young pupils, and other times, she goes through the motions. Her mind wanders somewhere else, or she simply dispassionately disconnects, while half-listening to a sob story from another wavering young spirit.
Although others like Sister Evelyn (Morgan Saylor) and Sister Candace (Eline Powell) share Sister Cathleen’s journey, this is her story, and Qualley effectively presents an altruistic, pure spirit with the very best of intentions. Referring back to the aforementioned two themes, Cathleen’s intrinsic faith does not necessarily waver, but coming-of-age – to her disbelief – clashes with her training and her larger pursuits. What seemed so clear upon entering the convent is now very cloudy.
Betts’s picture is a takedown of the novitiate, but she also accounts for the year that her film takes place. During the early 1960s, the Vatican II promoted changes to the church to lighten up or eliminate stringent practices. Since this particular convent’s traditions are in need of change, some may not view “Novitiate” as a repudiation on the Catholic Church but only its harsh, past practices. Others may view this film as a complete denunciation. No matter one’s position, Betts attempts to create universal sympathy for these young women.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.