In Novitiate, a young girl (Margaret Qualley) from a broken family finds comfort and stability in the Catholic Church As a teen, she plunges into a spiritual quest and commits herself to becoming a nun. As Sister Cathleen, she is looking for Love and Sacrifice, but she gets too much sacrifice and discipline from the abbess Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo).
Novitiate is set in 1962, and the order is severe, requiring silence and Grand Silence. Unfortunately for the young wannabe nuns, the drill sergeant in this nun boot camp is a sadist. Under the guise of discipline, there is self-flagellation, self-starving, walking on knees along the stone floors, and, worst of all, the “Chapter of Faults” group sessions of emotional abuse. The Reverend Mother is a bully, so profoundly mean, so devout to the discipline and so devoid of love.
All of this is taking place as Vatican II seeks to update the Church, a movement that the Reverend Mother resists in every way she can. She is afraid of losing both the routine she finds meaningful and her position of authority.
Sister Cathleen is on a romantic quest, where the romance is with a theoretical object, an ideal.
Because of Margaret Qualley’s performance in the lead role, we believe Sister Cathleen’s resolute commitment to her quest and the extremes to which it leads. Melissa Leo has gotten Oscar buzz for her performance, and she is good in a role less textured than she has pulled off in Frozen River or Treme. The best acting comes from Dianna Negron (Glee), as the promising #2 nun who leaves the convent, and from Julianne Nicholson as Sister Cathleen’s mother, who can’t understand how her daughter has come to this.
The story is one of unrelenting grimness and the film viewing experience becomes tedious. Novitiate is by no means a bad movie, it’s just a long slog through Eat Your Broccoli territory.
Novitiate is the debut feature of writer-director Margaret Betts, who shows promise as a director of actors and as a visual director. The film’s shortcoming is the story.
[SPOILER: The Wife aptly pointed out that the girl-on-girl sexual action is entirely unnecessary in the scene where Sister Cathleen yearns for physical and emotional comfort. There had already been a same-sex encounter between minor characters at the nunnery, and this scene, which is about the need for comfort as a relief from the all-consuming severity, didn’t need to go there. There’s also an utterly gratuitous glimpse of Qualley’s nipples that is only prurient. This is disappointing for a woman director, but, reading recent revelations from Salma Hayek and others, you never know if this wasn’t Betts’ idea at all.]