Set within the confines of a Catholic Convent, Novitiate explores themes of individuality, devotion and faith, all without getting too preachy. The beautifully crafted film follows the interwoven stories of four women as they come to terms with themselves, their desires, their powerlessness and their devotion. Novitiate benefits from a clear vision, a moving script and captivating performances.
The Catholic Church went through a transformation in the 1960s, prompted by the reinstatement of the Ecumenical Council of the Vatican (or Vatican II). With more secular leanings and an overhaul of archaic practices, the church attempted to transform itself from a stuffy, unchanging, exclusive institution to a more modern and accessible organization. However, that change had a drastic impact on the people who had devoted their lives to an institution and way of life that had been unchanged for centuries.
Set in the 1960s, with these changes looming in the background, the film is predominantly a coming of age story, constructed around Cathleen’s (Margaret Qualley) time as a Novitiate (a nun in waiting). Cathleen explains her choice to join the sisterhood has little to do with the church, or even faith, but is rooted in love; she wants to marry the love of her life, God. This calling is shared by many of the other sisters in her Novitiate group. Devotion is easy for Cathleen because it’s all about loving her man, that’s the easy part, the hard part is feeling his love. As Cathleen goes to extremes to prove her devotion she finds her faith waning. The strict order of nuns Cathleen is determined to join is headed by Melissa Leo’s unflinching Reverend Mother. Unbeknownst to her flock, she’s in the throes of a crisis of faith herself, as she unravels the changes set out by Vatican II. A foil to the Reverend Mother is Diana Agron’s Sister Mary Grace, a young nun who relishes the idea of change in the church. As the novitiate adviser, her love for her sisters is unwavering but it is also clear she fears becoming the stern, bitter, authoritarian Reverend Mother. Mary Grace’s crisis of faith is more conventional, she was young when she married Christ and now is not sure she still loves him. While those three women struggle with keeping their love alive, Julianne Nicholson’s Nora struggles to let hers go. Nora is Cathleen’s agnostic single mother who just can’t understand why her daughter chose the path she did. Not callus enough to stand in Cathleen’s way, Nora struggles on the sidelines with her inability to understand, or aide her daughter with such a big life decision. Powerhouse performances from the incredible cast make each character’s turmoil accessible and heartbreaking.
Novitiate is writer-director Margaret Betts’ narrative feature debut although you would never guess, judging by the careful construction of the film. The film plays out like a memory, with scenes blending into each other, narratives intertwining, and each character’s crisis informing another. While the narrative is bitter sweet the film is a pleasure to watch. Its form is thoughtful and respectful and even in intimate scenes – when the sisters are at their most pitiful – the lens offers a warm gaze.
Novitiate is not an easy film to watch. It deals with mature themes with heart-wrenching outcomes. But, it has been a long time since I have seen a film as devoted to its craft and narrative. It is worth your attention.
Reviewed by Vithiya Murugadas.