When it comes to religion on film, American cinema has fallen into a boring rut. More often than not, these religious films come off as propaganda, eschewing genuinely thought provoking questions in favor of the simplistic reiteration of a particular belief. That’s what makes a film like Novitiate so special: it wants to explore the Christian faith, and does so from an affectionate but contemplative standpoint – with the best ensemble of 2017 to boot.
Novitiate follows Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), a young woman with dreams of becoming a nun, despite her unusual background. She comes from a broken home, was raised by an atheist mother (Julianne Nicholson), and technically isn’t even Catholic. That being said, she’s always felt a connection to a higher power, found comfort in the church, and viewed the nuns that taught her throughout her childhood as role models. Thus, she chooses to undergo the process of “discernment” and become a nun.
But her faith – and endurance – is put to the test once she enters the nunnery, and is forced to undergo the brutal exercises that women hoping to pledge themselves to God were faced with prior to 1964. Meanwhile, a group of church leaders – all men – meet in Rome, trying to find ways to modernize the church. That group, known as Vatican II, would go on to change the lives of many nuns, ultimately stripping them of power and status within the church.
Margaret Betts’ feature debut explores two key ideas: that discernment was an abusive process, and that the Catholic Church did wrong by the nuns by removing these ordeals without allowing them to be a part of Vatican II. This is a complicated stance to take, and it requires almost every character in the film to exist within a gray area, but Betts embraces the opportunity and populates her film with well-rounded, fascinating figures. What the film lacks in narrative structure it makes up for in sheer power, with one thought-provoking scene after another. Sure, it’s a bit episode in nature, but there isn’t a single subplot that falls flat.
Some moments are reminiscent of 2014’s Whiplash, as Betts reveals the limits of human endurance with a stomach-churning intensity. Other scenes are quieter and contemplative, as Betts proves to have the ability to make a character’s motivations clear without dialogue or voiceover. In fact, much of the film is performed with relatively little dialogue, yet its themes are consistently clear. While Betts doesn’t answer any of the questions she poses – after all, these are complicated themes – she thoroughly (and entertainingly) explores every possible answer.
It helps, however, that Novitiate has a uniformly strong ensemble, with actresses exploding onto the scene or turning in career-best work. In the central role, Margaret Qualley gives a raw performance that’s as inspiring as it is uncomfortable to watch. Qualley has the arduous task of convincing a modern, perhaps nonreligious, audience that her desire to be a nun is strong enough to make the abuse she endures worth it – she does so with aplomb. Meanwhile, Julianne Nicholson reminds us why she’s one of America’s most underrated character actresses, and Dianna Argon proves to be the most talented Glee graduate thus far.
But it’s Melissa Leo’s work as the Reverend Mother that will (rightfully) earn praise from critics – and maybe even the Academy. As the closest thing Novitiate has to an antagonist, Leo relishes every chance she gets to torment the young nuns under her tutelage. She viciously spits her dialogue at her costars, moving around them with the intensity of a tiger about to pounce on its target. And, when paired with Betts’ smart screenplay, her character resists becoming a caricature and remains a fascinating, morally ambiguous woman.
Like many directorial debuts – or movies in general – Novitiate is not perfect. It sometimes teeters awkwardly between a contemplative, Terrence Malick-esque tone, and a story-drive narrative. And, while every performance is strong, some of the minor characters are difficult to distinguish. But what Betts accomplishes in her first film is miraculous in its own right. This is one of the best films about the Catholic faith in more than a decade, and a highlight reel of phenomenal acting from truly talented women. Novitiate isn’t necessarily light-hearted or easy viewing, but its immensely satisfying and powerful.
Overall rating: 8 out of 10.