Novitiate

novitiate-rev Novitiate  (2017)    Sony Pictures Classics/Drama    RT: 123 minutes    Rated R (language, some sexuality, nudity)    Director: Margaret Betts    Screenplay: Margaret Betts    Music: Christopher Stark    Cinematography: Kat Westergaard    Release date: November 10, 2017 (Philadelphia, PA)    Cast: Margaret Qualley, Julianne Nicholson, Dianna Agron, Morgan Saylor, Maddie Hasson, Liana Liberato, Ashley Bell, Melissa Leo, Rebecca Dayan, Eline Powell, Chelsea Lopez, Denis O’Hare, Chris Zylka.

Rating:fullstar1fullstar1fullstar1star-empty1

 Hollywood used to have a great relationship with Catholicism with movies like Going My Way, The Bells of St. Mary’s, The Nun’s Story, The Sound of Music, The Trouble with Angels and Sister Act. That all changed when stories of sexual abuse within the church got out. In recent years, movies like The Magdalene Sisters, Doubt, Philomena, Calvary and Spotlight (which won Best Picture in 2015) have portrayed Catholicism as a tangled web of secrets, lies and cover-ups. It’s not a religion, it’s a conspiracy in which nobody is held accountable for their sins. It’s refreshing to see a film like Novitiate that doesn’t demonize Catholicism by dwelling on the abuse that (allegedly) takes place within the walls of the schools, confessionals and convents. At the same time, it doesn’t canonize it either. Being Catholic isn’t easy. Choosing to live life as a bride of Christ is even harder.

 novitiateEver since she was introduced to Catholicism by her agnostic mother (Nicholson, L&O: CI), Cathleen finds comfort in it. At 17, she (Qualley, The Nice Guys) announces her intention to enter a convent and devote her entire life to God. Why? Because she’s in love with Him. At least that’s what she says. One can’t help but wonder if it’s an act of rebellion against her profane, chain-smoking mother and the unstructured home life she’s always known.

 It works like this. The girls start out as postulants, a position they hold for six months to see if they’re cut out for the rigorous life of a nun. If they make the cut, they become novitiates (basically, nuns in training) for about eighteen months. If they make it through that, then they take their final vows.

 Novitiate follows Cathleen and a few other girls- Sister Evelyn (Saylor, Homeland), Sister Emily (Liberato, To the Bone), Sister Margaret (Bell, The Last Exorcism Part II) and Sister Candace (Powell, Quartet)- as they undergo training under the stern eye of Reverend Mother (Leo, The Fighter) who informs them right away that in this convent, she is “the voice of God”. She’s going through a crisis of faith herself. What I haven’t mentioned is that Novitiate takes place in the 60s, a time of change and reform in the Catholic Church initiated by Vatican II, an ecumenical council convened by Pope John XXIII to address relations between the Church and the modern world. Reverend Mother thinks the Church is perfect the way it is and refuses to put them into effect. It’s her convent and she prefers to run things the way she always has. The idea of change terrifies her.

 While the stuff about Vatican II is interesting, Novitiate is at its best when it focuses on the girls’ efforts to adapt to a life of denial, deprivation, self-discipline, poverty and chastity. That last one is difficult given the teenage girls’ natural sexual urges. None of them have ever been with a man and wonder what they’re missing out on. For Cathleen, probably the most devoted of all the novitiates, her sexual curiosity manifests itself in a way that leaves her so wracked with guilt, it affects her mental and physical health.

 Qualley turns in a star-making performance as Cathleen. She has an open, expressive face that tells you more than any amount of expository dialogue. As her sin takes its toll on her body and soul, Qualley always keeps her character within the realm of believability. Saylor is also very good as Sister Evelyn. She has this one scene where Reverend Mother forces her to take an inventory of all her faults in front of her fellow novitiates. It’s absolutely heart-wrenching. She may be old enough to join the sisterhood but she’s still a child. Dianna Agron (Glee) is very good as Sister Mary Grace, the trainer who provides the only source of warmth and kindness for the girls. She likes the changes “suggested” by Vatican II, an opinion that puts her at odds with Reverend Mother.

 Oscar winner Leo turns in a bold and chilling performance as the manipulative and sometimes sadistic Reverend Mother who terrorizes the girls in her charge with a sweet/deceitful smile. When one girl breaks Great Silence by bidding her a good morning, she loudly berates her before making her crawl around on all fours while reciting her penance. She’s kind of like R. Lee Ermey’s drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket minus all the bad language.

 I learned a lot from Novitiate. I’m not Catholic so I approached it with an outsider’s POV. This is the first time since Dogma that I didn’t leave a Catholic-themed movie angry. It doesn’t dwell on the things that make so many people hate Catholicism. It does, however, show some of the cruelty that went on in the convents (but nowhere near the level of 2003’s Magdalene Sisters). By setting it in the past, it provides a sense of removal. That’s what went on then but it’s different now. I like how it shows the effect piety and living up to impossible standards of holiness has on some people. The movie seems to be saying that a nun’s life is in direct contrast with human nature. I found Novitiate to be absorbing. It’s interesting to see what life is like inside a convent. I don’t know how realistic it is but I’ll say it is based solely on the absence of Whoopi Goldberg.

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