Novitiate - 2017
Director(s): Margaret Betts
Writer(s): Margaret Betts
Cinematography by: Kat Westergaard
Editor(s): Susan E. Morse
Cast: Dianna Agron, Julianne Nicholson, Margaret Qualley and Melissa Leo.
Synopsis: Set in the early 1960s and during the era of Vatican II, a young woman in training to become a nun struggles with issues of faith, the changing church and sexuality.
If you’ve lived long enough in this world you know that we adopt things or practices to make the day to day grind a bit easier or meaningful. One of the things that help most people is faith. Either faith in a bigger power, i.e. a god figure, or faith in a religious institution that promotes that god figure. Prior to the 1960s and prior to what people called the “Vatican II” era, nuns were known to be held at a higher standard than the rest of the community, both due to their strict devotion to the Catholic Church and to their pure love towards Christ. They are commonly referred to as “The Brides of Christ”. Post “Vatican II,” the church wanted to portray a friendlier face to the public to both bring in and maintain church goers. These changes hit the nun order the hardest since their practices and social status were severely struck down and lead to a mass exodus of over 90,000 nuns from the Catholic Church. This movie touches on the weeks leading up to that event inside a particular convent.
I was blown away by writer-director Margaret Betts with this being her first feature length film. The dialogue she wrote for her characters was beautifully developed as you gain so much insight into what made each character tic without it needing to be fully spelled out. The themes touched in this film are overly complex and to some extent very personal but they never felt preachy of condemning of the religion. Somehow it felt impartial, even when the Reverend Mother, played impressively by Melissa Leo, was shown to be a quasi-villain of the movie, you fully understood her position and motivation. Betts also drenched this script with symbolism that I can’t wait to go back and revisit to catch anything I missed. My favorite was in how our protagonist Sister Cathleen, played beautifully by Margaret Qualley, undressed through the first two acts of the movie. She is shy and always covers up even when alone in her room, when she starts to question if she should be in this convent she gets a sign and her body is shown to the audience for the first time. It felt like a reverse from Adam and Eve.
Along with a great script, Betts and cinematographer Kat Westergaard shot a film deeply satisfying to the eyes, despite some of the scenes being hard to watch. They utilized the surroundings to their advantage, especially the large church located within the convent. There are many scenes in which a lone nun is shown within the grand space of the beautiful church as if the church is swallowing them up within their walls, overpowering them and consuming them. It also helps that your cast is color coordinated with their black and white garment, leading to some visually compelling shots of the nuns in the convent.
While every performance in this movie is stellar, specially Margaret Qualley, the clear-cut stand-out is Melissa Leo. She tip-toes the line of villain and victim beautifully through the film. She has been a nun for over 40-years and has overseen the convent as Reverend Mother for large majority of those years. As Reverend Mother, she is in charge of instilling the virtues, the rituals and the traditions she has come to hold true her entire life. This includes the self-inflicted punishment as a form of referendum, the crawling on your hands and knees while praying and the occasional starving of yourself to repent for anything that can be construed as a wrong towards Christ. When the church strips away everything she has held true, she feels abandoned, betrayed and lied to as everything she holds true no longer is applicable in the eyes of The Pope and the institution she dedicated her entire life to. This fact is why you feel for her even when she is demeaning and torturing these young girls who want to become nuns. It leads to a hard but enlightening viewing of what is faith and how religion can both lift you up and tear you down. She is angry, she is hurt and she is lashing out at everyone because her entire world is coming down on her. Leo delivers every line with purpose and intent and she sells them through her peering eyes. It’s sad that nobody is talking about Leo during the awards season.
Quick note: I also want to point out Julianne Nicholson who plays Nora, Margaret Qualley’s mother. She is a tough single mother trying to do her best at understanding why her daughter left her in favor of a life in a secluded convent. One of the best scenes comes when Nora goes head to head with Reverend Mother. It’s funny and drenched in tension at the same time.
Novitiate hit me personally as I also felt betrayed by my faith during my formative years. While this is an extreme case, since this woman dedicated her entire life to the church, I still feel people will be able to identify themselves with many of the characters in this movie. This movie somehow manages to squeeze in a love story, in how the nuns truly love Christ and feel a deep and meaningful connection to him. It also touches upon how the church has looked down upon women throughout history as they demoted the nuns without considering their devotion and dedication to their religion. This is a great script, a compelling story and a great performance all balled up into a fantastic movie that is sadly flying under the radar due to the large quantity of award contenders that have come out this year. I was beyond impressed by Margaret Betts as both a writer and a director and I look forward to her follow-up endeavor. Melissa Leo is why I love movies.
Novitiate is currently playing in select theaters. Seek it out. It worth a watch.
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