NOVITIATE — Review by Cate Marquis

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novitiate posterNOVITIATE stars Margaret Qualley as Cathleen Norris, a 17-year-old raised by a non-religious single mother who nonetheless decides to enter a convent, and Melissa Leo as the Mother Superior of the strict cloistered order she chooses to join. Cathleen’s decision to follow a calling to the life religious coincides with the monumental changes of Vatican II. Director Margaret Betts offers a beautifully-shot, thoughtful drama, filled with some fine acting, particularly by Melissa Leo. Continue reading…

We follow Qualley’s Cathleen and other novitiates on their spiritual journey through the trial period before they are to take their final vows, and Melissa Leo’s flinty Reverend Mother, as her world is rocked by the changes introduced by Vatican II. Many of those changes are well known but others that affected women religious are less so, yet ground shaking for them.

There are inevitable parallels to the Audrey Hepburn 1959 A NUN’S STORY, and indeed that film gets a mention in this story that takes place only a few years later. NOVITIATE is less on the mark, occasionally falling prey to common misconceptions, but it is elevated by the inclusion of the impact of the Vatican II changes on women in religious life. The changes may aim to modernize the Catholic Church but also underscore that the patriarchal structure remains.

Best of all, there is Melissa Leo, whose performance is reason enough to see this film. She is riveting in this drama but other fine performances also abound. The cinematography is consistently gorgeous, and Betts’ always presents a thoughtful look at the various topics she raises, whether the break with parents that entering a cloistered life entails, the novices’ romantic notions of what a nun’s life is like, or adjusting to enormous changes to a way of life that cloistered nuns have lived for centuries past.

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Cate Marquis

Cate Marquis is a film critic and historian based in the St. Louis, Missouri area. Marquis reviews film for the St. Louis Jewish Light weekly newspaper and Playback: stl website, as well as other publications. The daughter of artist Paul Marquis, she was introduced to classic and silent films by her father, as well as art and theater. Besides reviewing films, she lectures on film history, particularly the silent film era, has served on the board of the Meramec Classic Film Festival and is a long-time collaborator with the St. Louis International Film Festival, serving on various juries.