A woman’s declaration to faith is tested endlessly when she deals with life’s constant yearning, in Margaret Betts debut writing and directing effort ‘Novitiate’. Spanning over a decade from the early 1950s through to the mid-60s, the film centers around a young girl’s first initiation with love, in this case with God. Raised by a non-religious, single mother in rural Tennessee, a scholarship to Catholic school soon finds Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) drawn into the mystery and romanticism of a life devoted to the worship and servitude of God. With the dawn of the Vatican II era, radical changes in the Church are threatening the course of nuns’ lives. As she progresses from the postulant to the novitiate stage of training, she finds her faith repeatedly confronted and challenged by the harsh, often inhumane realities of being a servant of God. Cathleen soon finds herself struggling with issues of faith, sexuality, and recent changes in life of the Church. ‘Novitiate’ is rated R for adult language, and some sexuality involving nudity.
“There can not be love without sacrifice”, this is an on-going theme throughout the film that tenders ‘Novitate’ as being one of the most unnerving sits that I have experienced over the past twelve months. As to where a film like ‘Silence’ valued the very same devotional quality to its men who adopt the cloth, Betts film does the same for females that questions the very intentions of feminist empowerment. That’s not to say that ‘Novitate’ shouldn’t be absorbed by a female audience, quite the opposite actually. This is a grueling test of love and even mental endurance for just how important it is to give and receive love in physical form, and it’s in that perspective where the film casts an overwhelming amount of empathy in approach to those kneeling at the cross. What I admire about Betts abilities as a screenwriter, especially one that is a first-timer, is that she never feels like she is pushing her audience into one direction or the other, and instead would rather let the atmospheres and treatments speak for themselves in the bigger picture that was every bit as frightening for me as it was enlightening for the valuable price paid that has only been hinted at in passing, to this point.
This is a screenplay that doesn’t just follow our soul protagonist, but also the sisters around her who are training to take the vows, and who each strive through it in their own temperaments. Some feel as strong about this decision as anything they have ever taken on, some know in their hearts that it is a big mistake, and some seek it just for the need to be desired at anything in their lives. On the latter, the film definitely casts an overwhelming sentiment to the feeling that many of these women are just lost souls who have never experienced the best of what life has to offer. Some inherit this teaching because of a family tradition, but it’s in Cathleen’s story that feels like an unpaved path to the lord because of her unorthodox background. Coming from an agnostic Mother and a Father who was never there to begin with, it’s easy to see why Cathleen reached to the dark for something, anything that would bridge the gap to finding something to live for, and it’s in the angle where Betts focuses on; the lost souls that the church greatly take advantage of in their reprimanding with the benefits selfishly of mind control and all of its virtues.
At nearly two hours long, the film is a bit of an endurance test, not because of the ambitious runtime, but because of the minimal level of atmospheric tension that the film doesn’t always capitalize on. If I was in charge of penning this script, I wouldn’t remove a single thing from the screenplay, even if some sequences tend to repeat themselves in less desirable fashion. I took this repetition as intentional because the boredom of routine plays a pivotal role in displaying just how unappealing this lifestyle is to our pledging youth. There is definitely uneasiness from start to finish of this movie, but it always feels like the film is building to something constantly bigger, and the air of momentum eventually surrounds itself in the fog that grows too thick to see through. There are moments of payoff that any blind person can see coming from miles away, but the most evident absence of unpredictability from within can sometimes fumble away the chance at drawing out that strong semblance of feminist entendre that the movie so desperately requires.
As for visual displays, this is a very beautifully looking, closely shot movie that focuses solely on the greyish shading that echoes the questionable lessons that are being taught at this institution. Even when the sun shines, there’s a constant feeling of dread that engulfs the production and its characters whole, and feeds into the colorless lifestyles that these young women have adopted upon themselves, so as to remove any kind of temptation. Most of the style in camera work is vibrantly shot with claustrophobic angles, ringing true a feeling of enclosing freedom that removes itself with each passing day. What’s commendable coming from cinematographer Kat Westergaard’s presence behind the lens, is the capability to take such practical shots and churn them into something that is gorgeously decaying in channeling the very consistency that the atmosphere is going for. I say practical because there’s nothing truly experimental here, but Kat’s harbor of creativity shouldn’t be overlooked, for it’s in her capable hands where she presents the bland as something bold, and I never once felt that her resonation on this project ever lacked or distorted my fluent absorbing of the crumbling walls that were figuratively coming down with each passing minute.
These performances are right on as well, echoing a female dominated cast that mirrors the female production team. With the exception of two males that come into frame for about two minutes each, the film harvests the strongest circumference of female force that I have seen in recent memory. But the numbers game isn’t enough to just let this one skate by, as a trio of deliveries constantly raised the stakes in getting this story over. Margaret Qualley is riveting, channeling Catherine with a confidence that is slowly transformed into panic when everything she thought she knew is questioned. There’s a scene between her and another actress when Catherine needs comforting later on in the film, and it is among the most enthralling displays of anguish that I have ever seen. Dianna Agron is also commendable, despite only being in about half of this movie. Agron is someone who continues to grow with more big screen credits to her name, and as Sister Mary, Dianna presents a rare empathetic side to the convent that offers a welcoming breath of fresh air to these pledges, and more importantly a shining example of sisterhood to us the audience that this film very much required. Without a doubt though, the stealer of this show is once again Melissa Leo as the trivially jaded Reverend Mother. Leo stimulates with enough compromising soft tones and manipulative presence to really feed into her power play that she feeds on, but it’s in her ability to tear it all down and present some hearty vulnerability during the earthquake third act that earns her the most praise in terms of versatility that I can compliment. This woman can truly do no wrong in my eyes, and the last five years specifically of her career has shown us that she will be an emotional heavyweight for decades to come.
THE VERDICT – Taut, mesmerizing, and impactful. ‘Novitiate’ outlasts some of its brief moments of repetition with a compelling screenplay by the debuting Betts that questions the value of what you can feel physically. Through this female adorned production and cast, we get a methodically challenging melodrama that serves a higher power of profound than we’re used to for these movies. Put your faith in the lord, your ass belongs to Leo and all of her stirring passion on a narrow path to righteousness.