Novitiate is one of those films you got to really want to see. It is a film that most will miss in the theaters and might not find until later if it gets any sort of publicity or recognition during awards season. At its heart, it’s a film that deals with a very specific issue involving the Catholic church during a major time of transition that will either intrigue filmgoers or be just another title to skip over when looking for The Last Jedi showtimes.
Synopsis: Spanning over a decade from the early 1950s through to the mid-60s, NOVITIATE is about a young girl’s first experience with love. In this case, her first love is God. Raised by a vehemently non-religious, single mother in rural Tennessee, a scholarship to Catholic school soon finds Cathleen drawn into all the mystery and romanticism of a life devoted to the worship and servitude of God. (Mongrel Media)
Starring: Margaret Qualley, Julianne Nicholson, and Melissa Leo
Writer: Margaret Betts
Director: Margaret Betts
Rating: 14A (Canada)/R (United States)
Running Time: 123mins
The term novitiate refers to the apprenticeship or training period for ladies wanting to become nuns within the Catholic church. This story centers around a convent in the 1960s under the newly implemented Vatican II which was an ordinance by the Pope that called for major reform within the Catholic church and thus triggered backlash but was much needed as the church was still following the same archaic practices from one hundred years ago. The convent shown in the film was such a place ran by the Reverend Mother (Leo) who sees change as an unnecessary evil trying to infiltrate her house of worship.
While this change is occurring slowly in the background, the main storyline follows Sister Cathleen (Qualley) and her group as they enter the novitiate and begin the grueling process of becoming a nun. The film is mostly seen through Cathleen’s eyes, showing her life before she entered the church and what drew her there in the first place. This works both for and against the overall story because we are essentially limited to only experiencing Cathleen’s story as opposed to the other girls but it is serviceable because she has a very compelling narrative.
What was most interesting was during the first half of the film as Cathleen begins her journey, there is this underlying feeling of dread and panic shown from the perspective of her mother that gives the audience a moment of pause as to whether or not this is the right decision. This emotion manifests itself in a way where there is a vague representation of a cult-like venue that is squandering her freedom of choice. If seen through the right lens, it could be interpreted as a form of subtle horror which worked for the most part. The film eventually settled into a very different feel as it continued along Cathleen’s path but for several brief scenes the mother’s perspective of the entire process was truly terrifying because all she could do was watch as her daughter slipped away from her.
The cast overall does a good job of capturing the essence of what it must’ve been like entering into this life-long covenant and the daily rigors of what was expected of you within that community. While at times it was unbearable due to its monotony or plainness, it also showed flourishes of great beauty and purpose to devoting one’s life to a higher discipline. The film did an excellent job of showing a balanced approach towards this which could not have been so well executed had the cast not been as good.
Leo as the Reverend Mother did a very serviceable job in her role as the authoritarian and while she did well acting in most scenes she was in but some of her approach slightly came off as over-acting. Many could see her in the conversation for Best Supporting Actress when the Academy nominations are announced, but there wasn’t enough here to warrant that confident of a vote. And while the category might be slim, this could benefit some of the lesser known films that feature better parts to step into the limelight for selection.
Beyond the solid casting and semi-interesting story, the best aspect of this entire film was its art direction. Novitiate featured some of the most beautiful set pieces and locations that leaped from the screen and drew you in immediately by creating this supplemental and subtle feeling of isolation. You could feel the vastness of the chapel and the cold hard feelings of the walking stones as the ladies crawled across them. It drew you in and kept you in this world so much as it became a character in and of itself for most of the film.
Novitiate is not a movie for everyone. Frankly, it’s not even a movie this reviewer would recommend to anyone, however, there were some remarkable scenes and moments in the film that did not make it unbearable to watch. There was a deeper meaning to the story that resonated after leaving the theater. It serves as a reminder of almost forgotten times and teeters back and forth on being a love letter to tradition but also a warning against the resistance of change and how that can alienate others. Its message is apparent from very early on in the film but the full weight of it doesn’t hit you until well after the credits are over. While this film wasn’t necessarily a bad film, it is worth mentioning that it isn’t an easy watch.