The last movie I saw about nuns was the odd The Little Hours, which was ultimately about struggles with faith and the Catholic Church, despite its absurdity. Maybe that’s why it feels like I’ve seen all this before, despite being a completely different kind of movie.
Novitiate comes from writer/director Maggie Betts in her first non-documentary film debut, and focuses on a convent in the 1960s right at the time when “Vatican II” or the Second Vatican Council was convened. The Council had many reforms and changes to the canon, including things that affected both clergy and laymen. The word “Novitiate” refers to the training process that women go through in their work to become nuns.
The movie follows young Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) as she trains at the convent and struggles with everything, from her sexual urges to her belief that she is “in love” with God. The convent is led by the Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo), a fierce, unyielding force who prefers public displays of repentance and self-harm to gain atonement. Yet she also has her own hidden struggles, and the changes coming from Vatican II shake her foundations completely.
At times we see bits and pieces from some of the other nuns in the training process with the various issues they have, from arrogance to lesbianism, and some of these work better than others. Dianna Agron plays Sister Mary Grace, a mentor to the girls who is a different person behind closed doors. She’s great in the movie, a counterbalance of softness and worry against the anger and confident fury of Melissa Leo. Julianne Nicholson has a recurring appearance as Cathleen’s non-religious mother, who is shocked and appalled by the idea of her daughter becoming a nun.
It is a slow movie, carefully building the tension and intensity over time, as we see struggles of very differing sorts of magnitudes. At times the movie can be beautiful, but usually it is straightforward and simple, with dark rooms and hard to see conversations. With this sort of movie, it can be tricky to get invested; the start was a bit slow and the middle lagged, while the ending felt sincere and emotionally resonant.
Melissa Leo is the real standout here, more so than Margaret Qualley, whose character rarely gets a chance to play anything but low key and subtle. The movie plays it at a slow burn for most of the time, and often that works, but not always.
Perhaps it’s a personal thing for some people, but the movie didn’t really connect with me. It’s decently done in most ways, with well done acting and realistic conversations. But the characterizations were a bit spotty, and with a cast this large that’s problematic. Overall, it feels like a good take on this sort of subject, but unlikely to stand out in the crowd of indie “struggling with pain and sexuality to find yourself” films. The themes are interesting, but they seemed played out by now; an okay way to spend your time if this all seems fascinating.
Novitiate has a run time of 2 hours 3 minutes and is rated R for language, some sexuality and nudity.
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