Review: Novitiate Is Endlessly Fascinating

Margaret Qualley as Sister Cathleen in Novitiate (Mark Levine/Sony Pictures Classics)

Margaret Qualley as Sister Cathleen in Novitiate (Mark Levine/Sony Pictures Classics)

The Second Vatican Council, commonly known as Vatican II, brought the Roman Catholic Church into the 20th century when Pope John XXIII and the bishops of the Catholic Church instituted it during the ’60s. More than 50 years later, only some of the more extreme elements of the Catholic faith have rejected the modernization of the church but, quite shockingly, the film Novitiate depicts the issuance of the Vatican II changes with more nuance than expected, particularly considering how common it is for films to depict faith in its more conservative incarnations with skepticism to outright disdain. Novitiate is not just an intelligent and well-crafted film, it is a surprising one that finds nuance in its subject matter and a tremendous amount of empathy for its characters.

Novitiate takes place in the early ’50s, and centers around Sister Cathleen (Margaret Qualley, perhaps best known for the HBO series “The Leftovers”), a young woman who converted to Catholicism as a teenager and wishes to enter a convent upon leaving school. Despite the intense objections of her mother (Julianne Nicholson, one of Hollywood’s busiest and most reliable character actresses), she enters the novitiate, the training procedure by which young women learn to submit themselves to the church under the guidance of the Reverend Mother (Academy Award winner Melissa Leo). Novitiate depicts the particulars of the training process that women must undertake to become nuns, a process that exists entirely apart from the relatively modern world in which the film takes place.

Were the novitiate process undertaken in any religion that were not pervasive in American society, people would consider it medieval, barbaric and completely unacceptable, and even despite people’s familiarity with Catholicism, Novitiate still portrays the process as bordering on sadism. Vatican II removed some of the more abusive elements of the process, particularly the requirements for corporal punishment, but the film does not shy away from the worst elements of it.

The process is one that requires complete abasement in order to become a bride of Christ, and Novitiate portrays it with a genuine terror, mostly thanks to the performance by Leo as the domineering Mother Superior. This is Leo’s biggest and most striking performance since she won an Oscar playing the monstrous mother in The Fighter, and even if a strict nun is miles away from the brassy, chain-smoking Southie mom that earned Leo an Oscar, Leo makes the Reverend Mother equally terrifying. There is a certain irony that Leo earned her reputation as a solid, unflashy character actress before people realized just how big and how bold she could be.

Novitiate will undoubtedly receive the most notice for Leo’s performance, which dominates the film with its theatricality, but as great as she is, the film is better for its more nuanced elements, particularly with regard to Sister Cathleen attempting to reconcile why she wishes to join a convent. Qualley is quite fine as Sister Cathleen, and she brings an unexpected complexity to the role that goes beyond what the more salacious plot developments indicate. Despite the film’s entirely justified criticism of some of the novitiate process and its abuses, Novitiate takes its protagonist’s faith seriously, even if it ultimately favors a modern life over the cloistered existence.

Some of the most fascinating material in Novitiate deals with how the nuns deal with the modernization efforts of Vatican II. The film suggests that even though Vatican II brought the church into modern times, it had unintended consequences of devaluing the women of the church, who were not consulted about any of the changes and demoted from their exalted position within the Catholic faith. Writer/director Maggie Betts has empathy and respect for the nuns portrayed in the film, even Leo’s imperious Reverend Mother. There is not a moment where Novitiate treats its characters with anything less than respect.  

Novitiate is an endlessly fascinating film, in part because its characters live so close to modernity but so far away from it. This is a movie that abounds with respect, empathy and clarity, even where one would never expect it.  

Sony Pictures Classics

Now in theaters

4 Stars

Films are rated on a scale of 5 stars (must-see), 4 stars (exceptional), 3 stars (solid), 2 stars (average) and 1 star (unworthy).

Jeremy Ross is a Staff Reporter for Living Out Loud - LA, covering entertainment.

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