EIFF: ‘Novitiate’ is an Ambitious Take on Isolation in a Life Devoted to God

Novitiate, the feature-length debut of Sundance Film Festival’s Breakthrough Director winner, Maggie Betts, is a stylish and ambitious take on a historical moment in the transformation of Catholicism. The film, taking place mostly in 1964, is a coming-of-age tale following a young woman named Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), who decides to break away from her normal life in Tennessee to become a nun.

Cathleen’s fixation with the divine began as a small child when she was taken to church by her atheistic mother Nora (Julianne Nicholson) whose liberal beliefs allowed her child the opportunity to explore and choose whether or not she would follow faith. Her mother, however, could never have expected that trip to result in Cathleen leaving her for a future in the Church. The Church brought a peace in Cathleen’s life that was a sharp contrast to the strained environment at home where her mother and father often explode in a row. When Cathleen is offered a full scholarship to a Catholic school, run by nuns, she again feels the peaceful presence of God, and by the time she’s 17, she believes she is in love with God himself and leaves her broken home life and sets herself onto the path of becoming a nun.

As the story’s setting shifts to the vast medieval castle-esque convent situated in the middle of nowhere, it is revealed how isolated and repressed the nuns are, and as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that devoting a life to God, and God alone, is not enough. With this in mind, Betts begins to focus on key supporting players whose role and experiences at the convent reflect, not only the latter, but also the effects of the undergoing transformation of the Church under Vatican II.

Cathleen’s faith is put into question under the strict and repressive guidance of the Mother Superior (Melissa Leo), whose sense of spiritual purpose and power is shaken as she struggles to adopt the new orders presented by Vatican II, especially the ending of several forms of punishment that the Mother inflicts on many of the new nuns when they disobey her or if she deems them as too imperfect to embrace God’s love. Sister Mary Grace (Dianna Agron), who instructs Cathleen and the other young postulants, isn’t afraid of questioning the Mother Superior and defying her authority. However, she begins to struggle with her vows of chastity as, under the rule of Mother Superior, the nuns aren’t allowed to show any signs of affection or even think about one another. This struggle with sexuality and love becomes one of the most ambitious themes that Betts presents in a film with characters who are supposed to all be married to the Lord.

Betts doesn’t let the audience forget that the postulants are still just teenage girls who like to talk about boys and the experiences they’ve had with them, if any. By choosing to become a nun, the girls essentially put their lives on hold forever to devote themselves to God, without having had any of life’s natural experiences–like intimacy. Eventually, Cathleen, a teenager lovesick for God, becomes lovesick for something more: Comfort and companionship. This inevitably leads to her developing feelings for another nun which prompts yet further questioning of her faith. As the film comes to a close and the end titles roll, Betts addresses the fact that after Vatican II, 90 thousand nuns left the Catholic Church, which leaves the audience wondering if they too felt that loving God wasn’t enough.

The cast is the highlight of the film, as each actor, from the smallest role as a postulant to the larger than life Mother Superior, gives powerful and exceptional performances. As the main protagonist Cathleen, Margaret Qualley portrays a young woman in love with her faith in a way that was real and raw, but at the same time, taking us on a wild ride across the spectrum of loneliness and suffering. Dianna Agron’s performance had the same effect, as we see Sister Mary Grace struggle under the weight of regret that she bears over becoming a nun. Melissa Leo as the Mother Superior is a powerhouse performance worthy of an award season nomination. We see the Mother’s facade of power ultimately crumble as her faith falls apart all around her, to the point where she begins to believe that God has abandoned her. Julianne Harris, despite her minimal screen time, gave a powerful performance as a mother who feels she has lost a child. All of the characters in the film display some sort of loss or want for something, which the audience can relate to.

While the narrative is compelling, the visual storytelling often felt out of place with scenes serving little to no purpose. However, Kat Westergaard’s cinematography, while often shaky, incorporates a playful use of shadows and sunlight, enhancing the desolate atmosphere of the convent. What the film greatly lacked was a good soundtrack. It’s so forgettable that the audience will walk out of theatre not being able to remember whether or not the film even had a score. But, perhaps, the film’s silence was intentional as it reflects Mother Superior’s emphasis on the practice of “Grand Silence.”

Directorial debuts are never perfect, and this is no exception. But what Maggie Betts created is a bold and fresh look at a time of uncertainty.

Grade: B+

(Featured Image: Novitiate, Sony Pictures Classics)

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