If your idea of life in mid-20th-century convents is all about kindly nuns solving problems like Maria and climbing every mountain, Novitiate will be a real eye-opener. Writer/director Margaret Betts’ first feature-length drama tells the sometimes-bleak story of Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), an earnest young woman from Tennessee who decides to take the veil in the early 1960s, on the eve of the far-reaching Vatican II reforms that would change traditional church life forever. Continue reading…
A reserved outsider whose childhood is marked by battling parents and (eventually) an absentee dad, Cathleen finds comfort and peace in Catholicism as a teenager; she tells her worldly, skeptical mother, Nora (Julianne Nicholson), that she’s fallen in love with Jesus. But Cathleen’s idealism and faith are put to the most extreme test inside the convent. She and her fellow postulants are subjected to what can best be described as cruel hazing at the direction of the Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo). Her belief in the old ways is unshakeable, so she relentlessly breaks them down to rid them of selfishness, pride, and other sinful behavior.
Meanwhile, other nuns — like thoughtful Sister Mary Grace (Dianna Agron) — are questioning the rules that prevent the sisters from forming meaningful relationships. Those who dare to flout these rules are punished severely or sent away. But while the Reverend Mother tries to ignore the letters she gets about the changes in store for life in the Church, eventually she can’t hide from the inevitable, no matter what it means for her or the other sisters.
As the postulants, novitiates, and nuns wrestle with everything from the strict daily routine to questions about their sexuality and doubts about their faith and purpose, Betts captures it all with a sure hand. Directing from her own script, she makes the world of the convent completely convincing. And she elicits strong performances from both her stars and the supporting players, who all stand out as individuals even in a sea of nearly identical costumes. Indeed, it’s the importance of retaining that individuality that comes across as one of Novitiate‘s clearest messages. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW Comments:
MaryAnn Johanson: Writer-director Margaret Betts’s first feature takes us to a place — not only in time and place but in the human experience — rarely seen on film: the devotion and training of a Roman Catholic nun. Here is a female space that is actually shrouded in secrecy and mystery, unlike more mundane female spaces only seem to be because they are infrequently explored on film. A woman’s spiritual journey is equally rare onscreen, and here we have teenager Cathleen embarking on a path that few choose and even fewer endure upon. That breathtaking daring to *Novitiate*? It’s in the telling of a story that has always been there to be told, but has been all but ignored for far too long.
Susan Wloszczyna: As a fan of any and all nun movies, from The Trouble With Angels and The Sound of Music to A Nun’s Story and Doubt, I have always been fascinated by not just by the act of sacrificing one’s self for a higher purpose but also in depictions of an insular community where the female of the species is large and in charge. Novitiate, however, focuses on the undercutting of the sisterhood’s influence and power in the Church after Vatican II reforms were put into place during the early ‘60s. This feature debut by director/writer Maggie Betts movingly dramatizes how the loosening of long-held rituals and rules shook the core of many of these women of faith. Not only do we see the cracks through the all-seeing eyes of delicate 17-year-old Cathleen (Margaret Qualley of TV’s The Leftovers), a non-Catholic seeking a life beyond her broken family and embracing God as her father figure. But we also witness the pain, resentment and anger of the order’s Reverend Mother, brought to vibrantly seething life by Melissa Leo as she doubles down medieval traditions. But what could have been a hissable dragon lady in convent drag instead is ultimately a pitiful fallen leader who has lost the war against a patriarchal hierarchy.
Esther Iverem: The adoption of Vatican II reforms by the Catholic Church in the 1960’s is the backdrop for this intimate and engrossing exploration of how those reforms were a death knell for traditional convents and nunneries. Like recent features such as “Doubt,” “Novitiate” offers unique insights into the workings of the Catholic Church but it goes much further to interrogate what organized religion does and does not offer human beings.
Sheila Roberts: Writer-director Maggie Betts hits all the right notes tonally and stylistically as she explores the experiences of a young nun in training who comes to question her faith, sexuality and spiritual purpose during an era of radical church reform. Veteran Melissa Leo delivers a virtuoso performance as the Reverend Mother alongside impressive turns by Julianne Nicholson, “Glee” alum Dianna Agron, and star Margaret Qualley. DP Kat Westergaard’s evocative imagery and lighting and editor Susan E. Morse’s artfully interwoven storylines make “Novitiate” an intelligent and engrossing film experience.
Jeanne Wolf: Secrets behind closed doors power Novitiate from first-time director/writer Maggie Betts as young girls pay a price to give their lives to God in a Catholic convent in the 60’s. There’s physical and emotional suffering and graphic scenes that suggest a vow of chastity doesn’t put sexual feelings on hold. Melissa Leo is first rate as the Reverend Mother who’s as tough as a top sergeant in a boot camp, and Margaret Qualley draws you in as a young novitiate who struggles to find a balance between love and sacrifice to become a true believer. It’s not the story so much as the performances that linger in your mind. And Kat Westergaard’s superb cinematography makes you feel like you’re inside the cloistered walls.
Anne Brodie: Superior performances by Melissa Leo and newcomer Margaret Qualley bring Margaret Betts’ convent drama Novitiate into sharp, aching focus. Repression and abuse of aspiring nuns by Leo’s Mother Superior is the convent’s dirty secret; she is an outrage and completely unchecked. Her incomprehensible cruelty towards vulnerable young girls takes place behind cloistered walls and in the shadow of the all-powerful priests who may or may not have known what was happening. Qualley’s Sister Cathleen escaped an abusive home life for this, the pit of hell, where she is trapped and in the sites of Reverend Mother’s tyrannical rage. Tyranny is a familiar concept these days but within a religious order it seems indecent, wicked, even evil. We feel unsafe. However, the strong and graceful Sister Cathleen has encountered something she many be uniquely qualified to withstand. In the context of pre-Vatican 2 zeitgeist, this is a tale of two women engaged in a brutal Battle Royale, psychological warfare. Ignore low marks on IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes. This is undoubtedly a niche film and it is a powerful experience.
Nell Minow: Maggie Betts’ first feature is remarkably assured, bringing us into a hidden world filled with complex characters struggling with issues of faith, identity, and change. The images are beautifully composed and the movie is filled with performances that are authentic and moving.
Liz Whittemore: Novitiate boasts some of most intriguing storytelling of the year. Based on the Catholic Church’s traditional convent training, the film holds nothing back in regards to the reality of its formally medieval practices, exposing the emotional and sometimes physical torture that accompanied the everyday lives of “the brides of Christ”. Posing questions of blind faith versus finding one’s own path to God, Novitiate is a perfect depiction of how religious extremism can skew entire populations and fill a void in one’s soul.
Jennifer Merin: Writer/director Margaret Betts’ fine first feature pulls back the veil on the cloistered lives of nuns and novitiates who enter the convent to devote themselves to Christ. Focusing on the story of teenage novitiate Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), the film reveals the personal turmoil that follows her chosen order’s required renunciation of intimacies of any kind. Cathleen’s personal psycho-physical drama is set against Vatican II’s revisions in the practices of nuns, a set of mandated changes that unhinge the convent’s conservative Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo) and, on a broader scale, indicate that the culture and lifestyle of women religious is dictated by men. Whether you’re Catholic or not, this compelling film will fascinate you.
Cate Marquis: NOVITIATE 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…
Thelma Adams: From rage to rapture, Melissa Leo runs the gamut in another Awards Season contender, lifting up Maggie Betts’ Novitiate for a major hallelujah.
Director: Margaret Betts
Release Date: November 3, 2016
Running Time: 183 minutes
Principal Cast: Margaret Qualley, Melissa Leo, Dianna Agron
Screenwriter: Margaret Betts
Production Company: Maven Pictures
Distribution Company: Sony Pictures Classics
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Thelma Adams, Nikki Baughan, Anne Brodie, Betsy Bozdech, Cynthia Fuchs, Pam Grady, Leba Hertz, Esther Iverem, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sheila Roberts, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna, Jeanne Wolf
Written by Betsy Bozdech, edited by Jennifer Merin