‘Novitiate’ (2017) | Sundance Review

Vatican II is a historical event that intrigues me greatly. An organization that prides itself on tradition and ritual is forced to recognize its antiquity and must adapt (somewhat) to the time. And the people practicing Catholicism at the time, who are set in their ways, have to reinvent part of their lives even if they don’t like it. Why? Well, it’s God’s will, obviously. Writer-director Margaret Betts tackles not only this shift but also Catholic guilt, the mental dangers of celibacy, and the very nature as to why someone would dedicate their life to the church in the ambitious, if sometimes wobbly, Novitiate.

The film follows a young woman named Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), who is being raised by a single mother (Julianne Nicholson). Her mother does not believe in religion but decides to expose her daughter to Catholicism so Cathleen can make a decision about faith herself. She is given a scholarship to a Catholic grade school, where she feels isolated but is given the attention of a nun (Ashley Bell) similar to her who tells her the way she was able to fill the empty void in her life was by marrying God and becoming a nun. Cathleen decides to take this path and starts her training, led by the strict, penance-obsessed Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo) who is trying to go as long as she can before they have to implement the new changes set in place by Vatican II.

Cathleen constantly talks about wanting love and comfort from God. She wants to be able to feel her love mentally and physically reciprocated, mainly sexually (though she never acknowledges that). However, this being the Catholic Church, any sort of lustful thought is not only forbidden but seen as evil, especially in a time before Vatican II. So, how does a sexually repressed eighteen year-old who is told she is in an eternal bond of love deal with the feelings she is taught not to have? That is a complicated issue which Margaret Betts dramatizes quite well, though occasionally overwrought. Qualley has a tough job playing a person not self aware of her situation and finds that line beautifully. She also has a great tortured face, a classic staple of Catholic guilt films.

While Qualley remains a quiet and insular person, Leo’s Reverend Mother is anything but. She is forceful, intense, and contains all the zeal you normally see out of a fire and brimstone Protestant minister. Does she go too far in some aspects of her performance? Certainly, as I think Melissa Leo tends to do, but the moments where she needs to be utterly terrifying or almost irrevocably broken, the intention is able to cut through the largeness of her performance to be quite effective. Dianna Agron, as the young nun coming to terms with maybe she doesn’t believe this stuff anymore and who is most vocal about the Reverend Mother’s aversion to Vatican II, also gives a strong turn, and I wish the film had allotted more time to her crisis of faith and aftermath.

Novitiate will sometimes fall under the own weight of the many questions and issues it tackles. Because it wants to cover so much ground, some threads are not entirely satisfying, and the pacing jerks around somewhat as it jumps from dilemma to dilemma. Even as the lead, Cathleen’s arc doesn’t fully round itself out. Every character exploration varies from 70-92% complete (obviously arbitrary numbers), but what Betts does show us is so compelling you can forgive the percentage it doesn’t cover. Novitiate‘s parts may be better than the whole, but at least you’ve got some really great parts to work on.

Look, I am an atheist who went to a Catholic school as a complete outsider. Seeing complex looks at how Catholics deal with their faith will typically mark my interest, and Margaret Bett’s Novitiate is no exception. It’s also so refreshing to see these issues tackled through a uniquely female point of view, a very unrepresented viewpoint within Catholicism, let alone filmmaking. Is it perfect? No, but this is a damn good look at a myriad of psychological issues Catholics have dealt with for hundreds of years and will continue to deal with for the foreseeable future.

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