Rating: R, language, some sexuality
Release Date: October 27, 2017
Jeanne: The concept of marrying Christ has always been a challenging idea for most non-Catholics --- and many practicing Catholics --- to accept. But that is, in fact, what nuns do --- they don wedding gowns and marry Jesus --- wedding bands, et al. "Novitiate" delves into this beautiful custom, much revered prior to Vatican II, initially announced in 1959. And somehow, after the necessary changes in the Catholic Church were instituted, the very holy lives of the most devoted nuns disintegrated.
The daughter of a broken marriage, Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) is given a scholarship to a parochial school. Her mother, Nora Harris (Julianne Nicholson), is distinctly non-religious, but appreciates the opportunity thrust upon her daughter to receive an advanced education. That is, until Cathleen suggests that she desires to be a candidate for the convent. Nora is vehemently opposed, but Cathleen is determined to follow this path.
The Order of the Sisters of Blessed Rose is devoted to a quiet life of prayer and devotion in the mid-60's right before the reforms of Vatican II. Ruled over by Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo), a Mother Superior with an iron will, the new recruits --- or postulants --- try to learn the rules of their abbey.
From the practice of "Grand Silence" to the terrifying "Chapter of Faults", these young women must navigate a world which is totally unfamiliar. Not being allowed to speak during Grand Silence is one thing, but the vilifying of each postulant during Chapter of Faults by the Reverend Mother is quite another experience.
Leo stayed in character throughout the filming --- sleeping at the convent and remaining in costume. Her performance is so powerful and frightening that one should expect her name as a nominee come Oscar season.
Reverend Mother is one of the characters most affected by the decisions of Vatican II. She fights the changes required with great force, but the Archbishop (Denis O'Hare) will not be denied. In all fairness to the older nuns, their needs or concerns were never considered in the changes of Vatican II. And, they, more than any other group, were the most affected. One third of the total population of nuns was depleted over a decade following the outcome of
Qualley is a prefect choice for Cathleen. Director Maggie Betts, who had no idea her ruminations on Catholic nuns, following her work on her documentary "The Carrier" about AIDS in Africa, would lead to a feature film, had considered casting a blue-eyed blonde until she tested Qualley, who is exquisite. She blends a charismatic quietness with a fierce devotion unmatched for such a complicated character.
And as much as I am wowed by the rest of the cast, one in particular, Morgan Saylor ("Homeland") as Sister Evelyn, is a major scene stealer. David and I loathe using this word --- however, she is riveting! When Reverend Mother pits her in a ritual of true confessions --- a scene so heinous it's akin to a fraternity hazing --- Saylor is mesmerizing in her breakdown of perceived sins. A tour-de-force performance.
"Novitiate" is one of those small films that David and I live for. It is superbly written and directed by Betts --- a wunderkind in her field of other females in the industry. If you see nothing else this fall ---do not miss "Novitiate"!
Opinion: Strong See It Now!
David: When Cathleen Harris was 12 years old, her non-religious mother sent her to a Catholic school because they were poor and tuition was free. This decision would change Cathleen's life forever.
"Novitiate" (pronounced noh-VISH-ee-it) is the feature film debut of writer/director Maggie Betts. Inspired by a book about Mother Theresa, Betts' three-year project earned her the Breakthrough Director Award at Sundance 2017 --- and the prize was well deserved. "Novitiate" is easily one of the year's best films.
Relying largely on a practically all female cast of 20-something actors, the movie chronicles the tribulations of young girls who believe they want to devote their lives to God, making Him their husband, while conflicts of the mind and the flesh seep into their consciousness. Margaret Qualley is superb as Sister Cathleen, whose early devotion to God and Christ is challenged by her need for physical intimacy --- not necessarily in a sexual sense, but more in the realm of comfort via human contact.
Her mother, Nora (Julianne NIcholson) objects strongly to her daughter's decision to live in a convent where the nuns never stray from the grounds, and observe strict rules like no talking after 9 p.m. This is called "Grand Silence" as opposed to "Regular Silence" at other times.
One of the novitiates' biggest challenges is accepting that their love of God is never overtly reciprocated. It must be taken on faith alone. In one moving scene --- and there are many ---- one of the nuns questions her beliefs while kneeling in a chapel, asking "Where are you?"
Meanwhile, the dominant performance belongs to Oscar winner Melissa Leo ("The Fighter") as the convent's Reverend Mother. She lays down the law, telling her new postulants that she arrived there 40 years ago, and has never left the property.
Her way is the only way, but that becomes a major problem when Vatican II reforms are announced. New rules --- like habits being no longer required, and nuns being no more special in the eyes of the Catholic church than ordinary parishioners --- are so foreign to her standards that she completely ignores them. But a visit from Archbishop McCarthy (the always excellent Denis O'Hare) changes that, as well.
Leo's strong and highly emotional turn could earn her a third Academy nomination. She is compelling in her stubbornness, and somewhat terrifying in the weekly sessions where the novitiates must express their faults and weaknesses to the entire group. Here Reverend Mother dishes out penance, maintaining control largely based on humiliation, as the girls move around on their knees.
The story moves briskly from one scene to another. Under Betts' leadership, the camera rarely lingers for very long in any one sequence. When Leo's character ultimately announces the Vatican II reforms, the camera turns to all the nuns, young and old, to capture their reactions. The more senior sisters are in shock, some in tears, reminding us that the changes in the church represent a major upheaval in their lives. It is a signature moment in the film.
The other major cast members are all impressive. These include Dianna Agron as Sister Mary Grace, mentor to the novitiates, and a veteran nun who questions the motives of her superior. Liane Liberato, so phenomenal in "Trust" (2010), plays Sister Emily who undergoes extreme self-doubt. Liberato is completely wrapped up in her role, proving her prior accolades were no flukes. As for
Nicholson --- one of my favorite actresses --- she comes to the convent and lashes out at the Reverend Mother. It's one of those scenes moviegoers relish because someone finally stands up to Leo's character.
"Novitiate" has no weak moments. It is flawless --- especially for a novice director.
Opinion: Strong See It Now!