Film Review: Novitiate

A strong premise and protagonist can’t fully elevate this tale about teen nuns.
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Novitiate opens with a wonderful premise. Toward the beginning of the film we hear the voiceover of teenage Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) explaining why she and several other very young girls want to become nuns. It’s a choice guided by the same passions that influence other adolescents. Quite simply, “We were women in love.”

The object of their affection is, of course, God. The non-Catholic writer-director Maggie Betts has said that before she read an unauthorized biography of Mother Teresa, whose letters were apparently quite torrid stuff, she didn’t realize nuns were brides of Christ who did indeed consider the Lord their husband. She described the newly canonized saint’s relationship with God as “volatile” and her love for Him as “not a healthy one.” Her curiosity piqued, she read many memoirs of nuns, and eventually, and smartly, decided to set her film about a teen’s fervent love for God against the backdrop of the sweepingly liberal Church reforms established by Pope John Paul the XXIII during the momentous Second Vatican Council he called between 1962 and 1965, known popularly as Vatican II.

Novitiate’s point of departure, then, is interesting from both a character and historical angle. Unfortunately, the film isn’t quite as compelling as its subject matter. In the beginning we watch the childhood of Cathleen rendered in broadest strokes: Her unreligious, bold and promiscuous mother Nora (Julianne Nicholson) divorces from her wayward father, thereby severing a relationship that gave Cathleen her first look at a “volatile” and “unhealthy” love. Cathleen is shy, but when her mother enrolls her in a Catholic school because its nuns are offering scholarships, she find comfort in the peace of the Church, and in the kindness of one nun in particular. Now in the early ’60s, Nora is horrified when Cathleen decides to become a nun herself, but her anxiety only has cause to deepen as her daughter advances through the emotionally and physically extreme stages of training under the directorship of a dragonish Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo).

Cathleen is a great character, a young woman whose passions roil beneath a reserved exterior. Qualley sounds a good deal like Kristen Stewart but isn’t as affected as that actress can sometimes seem. When we stay with her and watch how she reacts to the severe circumstances of life under the Reverend Mother’s rule, how the atmosphere combines with her ardent nature to produce acts of extraordinary and self-imposed rigor and then of quite moving abandon, Novitiate is at its best.

But when we leave Cathleen to focus on different characters, including the other and far less interesting novitiates (played by a who’s-who of up-and-coming actresses, such as “Homeland”’s Morgan Saylor and If I Stay’s Liana Liberato; a teacher, Sister Mary Grace (“Glee”’s Dianna Agron); and the Mother Superior, the film is less absorbing. It’s almost too bad Cathleen is as intriguing as she is, because most everyone else can seem like “a type” in comparison. Reverend Mother wants to hold fast to the old ways of convent life and instruction that are being swept aside by the progressive Vatican II reforms. Though many of the practices she loves are, quite literally, medieval, they are all she knows; she has not left the convent in 40 years. Can you imagine what an upheaval the Vatican II changes must have seemed to such lifers? This is the question Betts appears to be hoping her viewers will ask, but because the two nuns we get to know best are rather flat, they do not invite much empathetic speculation on their or their sisters’ behalf. Sister Mary Grace is The Nice One and The Mother is simply The B****. A possible attempt to humanize the latter via a scene in which she professes her undying love for Christ even though He may have abandoned her is more over-the-top than moving. In fact, there are a few moments when the film seems to suffer from a fatal sense of self-seriousness, a feeling aided by its dramatic score by Christopher Stark. The lack of a character to whom we are attached among the nuns undercuts the impact of that moment filmed for emotionality when the nuns must at last face the Vatican II reforms.

With a few exceptions, what we see of the other novitiates (The Awkward One, The One Who’s There For the Wrong Reasons, the Strict One) is their sufferings under a retrograde system. So that in the end what we are left with is, in the main, a simplistic feeling that this way of life pre-1965 was just bad, though I’m not sure this is what Betts intended, as she has said that the heart of her story is to “explore the subject of the way women love.”

Perhaps that exploration could have superseded all other concerns if Novitiate had stayed tighter on interesting Cathleen and her religious love (which is apparent) while paring down the roles of supporting players. However, Betts, who won the Special Jury Prize for Breakthrough Director at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, does have an eye for composition, as well as a nose for compelling material.

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