I knew very little about Novitiate prior to viewing it. One of the few things I did know was that it’s the first feature-length film directed by Margaret Betts, who was recognised as this year’s Breakthrough Director at Sundance, based off an original screenplay by her too.
The story of Cathleen, a young woman (Margaret Qualley, another new-ish talent known for The Nice Guys and The Leftovers) training to become a nun, carries relatively familiar themes of questioning faith, the strictness of the Church and repressed sexuality but what stuck out to me was its historical specificity in relation to these themes.
A study of the church at a critical time
Introductory title cards establish the film’s historical context – it’s set in 1964, a time when the Pope’s Council, knows as the Vatican II, issued 16 documents that intended to provide a more open and welcoming image of the church with a relaxation on the rules. What the documents state become part of the mystery of the movie and a point of conflict for the authoritative figures, whereas the young nuns are dealing with their own conflicts of faith, doubt and sexuality. Had I not known it was an original film, the ambitious scope of it would have made me assume it was based on previously existing source material.
However, for as many themes it reaches, it doesn’t completely maintain its grasp on compelling drama. I mentioned that the themes are familiar and consequently, a few of the narrative beats are familiar. It has a running time of just over two hours which can be felt, especially with a pretty long first half and some redundant scenes in the second. This is particularly the case in scenes solely focused on its primary character Sister Cathleen, an archetype in the nun story genre.
Best supporting actresses
Qualley is serviceable but she’s surrounded by better performers portraying more interesting characters, who test her strength of religion on both sides of the spectrum. Dianna Agron’s sympathetic Sister Mary Grace is a far cry from Quinn Fabray as a “been there, done that” nun there to guide the new generation despite still struggling with the same things pervading their personal lives, and Julianne Nicholson proves again why she deserves more attention with an excellent performance as Cathleen’s fierce but fair mother, skeptic of religion but giving her daughter the freedom to explore it, yet doubting the strength of her beliefs.
Melissa Leo’s best performance in years
Melissa Leo steals the show as the terrifying Reverend Mother who rules the novitiates with an iron fist without displaying much of the loud aggression typically associated with her type of persona. Her intimidation is best exemplified in a scene where she coerces a novitiate to explain what she does daily that upsets Christ. Her suspect smile and steely stare are as scary as JK Simmons’ growls in Whiplash.
Novitiate may well have been a more compelling story if it was instead focused on this ultra-orthodox leader abusing her power at a time when the Pope was changing the Church as she knew it, for all of her life. In some ways she’s the binary opposite of Sister Mary Grace, who has more in common with the new generation than her elder peers, and the tension exists in their differences on which of the novitiates should become a nun and whether they should at all. There’s one scene with Leo and Nicholson together, wherein their strong personalities clash in discussion regarding the church and Cathleen – it’s the most arresting scene in the film, largely due to the actresses.
As well as Betts, Novitiate should serve as a calling card for more feature-film opportunities for cinematographer Kat Westergaard. The symmetrical composition and orderly placement of figures in churches makes it virtually impossible for an ugly shot and Westergaard is aware of that and more, avoiding a nunsploitation-like view of the girls in their personal spaces.
Do you think Melissa Leo has a chance of being nominated for an Oscar for Novitiate? Let us know in the comments below!
Novitiate was released on October 27, 2017 as a limited release in the US. For all international release dates, see here.