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As the movie progresses, I started to believe that her mother was right. Young women who want to love and serve Jesus are systematically brutalized and humiliated by the Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo). In fact, the Reverend Mother appears consumed by her desire not to allow the young women to think. She also makes it difficult for them to bond with each other. She demands total and absolute obedience from all the women--postulants, novitiates, and nuns.
Then, Vatican II ends, and the Catholic church wants to modernize and change. Whether this is good news or bad news for the nuns is an open question in the context of this movie.
You'll have to see the movie to learn what happens to Sister Cathleen and the other novitiates. We saw this film at Rochester's excellent Little Theatre, but it will work on the small screen. As I write this review, the movie has a anemic 6.7 IMDb rating. I think it's better than that.
Couple of comments: this is the feature length debut of writer-director Maggie Betts, And what a debut it is! Betts takes a close look at what the road is like towards becoming a nun, with a 6 months postulate and then the 18 months novitiate. These are all young women with an idealistic view of the Catholic church. In a parallel story, Betts also examines the consequences of the Vatican II reforms. The Reverend Mother who runs the convent is entirely opposed to any ref0rms. "Isn't the church just perfect as it is?", she retorts when a younger nun questions her. As one might expect, the pace of the movie is quite slow and deliberate, so this isn't for anyone in a hurry. At times it almost feels like a documentary. I was bowled over by it all, to be honest, and felt deeply invested into these characters. There are a number of scenes in the movie that will break your heart (the disbelief of Kathleen's mother upon learning what Kathleen intends to do with her life; the "chapel of faults"--I shan't say more...). As it plays out, one can't help but be reminded of "The Nun's Story" starring Audrey Hepburn (when asked why she decided to become a nun, one of the young ladies refers to that movie). The movie is helped enormously by several towering performances: Melissa Leo as the Reverend Mother is outstanding, but even better is Margaret Qualley as Kathleen (in one of her first movie roles--she is best known for her recurring role in HBO's The Leftovers). Qualley reminded me physically immediately of a younger Kirsten Stewart. The range of emotions that Qualley is able to convey on the big screen makes it very clear to me that this is a major up-and-coming talent, the last of which we surely haven't seen. Same can be said of writer-director Maggie Betts. If it sounds like I am gushing about this movie, you bet I am. This movie is for me one of the best I have seen this year.
"Novitiate" premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival to immediate critical acclaim. No idea why it's taken so long to reach my local art-house theater here in Cincinnati, but better late than never. The Saturday evening screening where I saw this at was attended very nicely. You could hear a pin drop, as the theater was enraptured by this film. If you are in the mood for a probing psychological drama that poses some serious questions about religion and faith and features several stunning acting performances, you cannot go wrong with this, be it in the theater, on VOD or eventually on DVD/Blu-ray. "Novitiate" is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!
There was no joy, no sense of companionship or sense of being part of something exciting. No real narrative about what the impact of Vatican II had on Catholic thought, just a few superficial conversations between the Archbishop and the Reverend Mother. It is a bleak and morose story of postulant Cathleen's struggle to survive a mean and closed minded mother superior whose ego should have driven her to confession.
Too bad, this could have been a great story, with compelling dialogue, dramatic tension, and a breakthrough moment of personal change. Instead it was a painful exaggeration of the predictable inaccurate stereotypes of Catholic Sisters, complete with Nun-Zilla. It gives people who have always hated the Catholic Church a good reason to keep hating it.
Margaret Betts was scheduled to Skype in and have a conversation with the audience at the theater we attended. I'm kind of glad she could not make it. The sisters in the audience would have had a hard time coming up with something nice to say.
The film is about a group of young girls who pledge themselves to become nuns. The film takes place somewhere in the early 70's, so there were many taboo elements including discovering sexuality that were just frowned upon at the time, especially at a Catholic school. The mother superior in the film is stern and cold but times are changing and the students discover the tolls that their pledged lifestyle takes on them and find out who they really are.
Margaret Qualley and Melissa Leo are just stellar in this film. Leo is always consistently good and she is just born to play the roles such as the Reverend mother in this film. The set and costume design is sleek and seems authentic for the time period and religious backdrop. Its a film that questions religion and how much of ourselves we can give to God. I find it interesting that the filmmaker had such a creative effort and if there were any personal influences in making the picture.
There is a crisis of faith and exploring human sexuality, which directly interferes with the practices of the sisterhood in the film. Its a good watch, although I think the film could have been shorter. It doesn't always work and probably will fizzle out as the year goes on but for real film lovers like myself its something to check out and form an opinion for.
No one broke mirrors, no one made us crawl in shame, no one would laugh at a sister with dementia - where do they get this stuff???? Reverend Mother's House of Horrors - was there absolutely no one happy in that Convent - except for the Novice Director, who, of course, left. And no one to replace her to help these young women????
And all of those Sisters left because of Vatican II? It had to be no more than a month, at most. They all jumped ship rather quickly! And they left because of Reverend Mother's three minute brutal summary of Vatican II, which actually lasted five years and produced volumes of documents. We studied the Vatican II documents for two years as Novices and Postulants. Mother's talk was enough for many to just pack up and leave??
Can no one write a realistic film about a convent that isn't either as silly as Whoopie or as sadomasochistic as this one? Lord, help us!
Margaret Betts,who is in her directorial debut, presents to us a movie that stars Andie McDowell's daughter Margaret Qualley together with Julianne Nicholson and Melissa Leo,as the complex Reverend Mother, that tells the story of Cathleen,a young woman who obviously grew up in a broken family, that found comfort in God to meet her needs of love and decides to become a nun as well as how Pope John XXIII's Vatican II reforms severely affected the Catholic Church in both good and bad ways.
While many viewers will see this as an anti-Catholic film especially people are not old enough to experience what Traditional Catholicism is all about during the 50's and the 60's when mass was said in Latin and the priest saying mass turned back to the crowd; the contributions that nuns brought to the American educational system; and how nuns truly tried to become perfect like Jesus Christ as well as how they punished themselves whenever they commit sins against God. Added to that, we also see Cathleen's transformation in life from being a little child to her journey on living the monastic life from being a postulant, a novitiate, and finally a nun. It also tells us what monastic life was all about pre-Vatican II and how the reforms somehow made the Catholic Church deteriorate as followers of Christ. No wonder that there are more than 14,000+ Protestant denominations today unlike in the past when there were probably only 1,000+. It also showed us how the reforms brought the worst on Cathleen as she struggles with these Vatican II reforms in more ways than one from her faith,the monastic life that she is accustomed too, and even in terms of her sexual desires as well as her identity as a nun as well as a Catholic.
Aside from that,we are also brought to the issues of feminism especially when the Vatican II reforms were instituted as the nuns were not given any voice at all nor were asked of their opinion which was greatly characterized by the complex Reverend Mother,portrayed extremely well by Melissa Leo. At the end of the movie,we witnessed on how these reforms led to the mass exodus of 90,000 nuns from the convent. No wonder there is a shortage of both nuns and priests in the Catholic Church particularly in the United States at present. While the new Catholic Church has become open to the modern world, they definitely were hurt by these reforms as the changes brought less shepherds of Christ that led to the deterioration of Catholicism especially with less people becoming either priests or nuns.
Like all good melodramatists, Betts' vision of the Catholic church is pure good and evil. She has an inordinate amount of sympathy for her protagonists, the young nun postulants and their mentors and an over the top disdain for an evil mother superior from hell.
Betts' opening scene is the weakest in the film. She introduces us to her goody-two-shoes protagonist 17 year old Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), in the home of two bickering parents, the outspoken mother played by a rather good Julianne Nicholson. The dialogue between the parents is laced with profanity and the domestic discord is wholly generic in nature--suggesting that Betts didn't bother to take any time to flesh out her characters at this juncture.
Fortunately our break into the Second Act comes rather quickly and we're thrust into the action centered in a Catholic monastery in the Midwest circa 1964. The withdrawn Cathleen disappoints her non-religious mother Nora by her decision to enter the convent. There she meets another saintly character, Sister Mary Grace (played by the most attractive Dianna Agron of Glee fame) who shares her pristine devotion to God and love of ritual which most people in the outside world would look down upon.
The setup is to present the fledgling novitiates as pure, chaste, do-gooders who become victims at the hands of the vicious Reverend Mother, deliciously played by Melissa Leo who virtually saves the film from complete mediocrity. Yes it's disappointing that Betts doesn't have a shred of sympathy for the Mother Superior and her enforcers and presents them as one-dimensional, stereotyped martinets. But by the same token, Leo is so over the top in her portrayal of calculated viciousness that we end up feeling great enjoyment at "hissing the villain." Thus Betts has successfully incorporated the primary directive of the melodramatic screenwriter's lexicon: make sure your villain is effective-the more evil, the better!
Contrary to the pronouncement of numerous critics, the machinations of Sister Cathleen and her buddy postulants, fail to make for compelling drama as their pious devotion is all rather perfunctory. There's the expected lesbian dalliance with Sister Cathleen in need of some tender loving care at the hands of a recently transferred novitiate, as well as the completely unbelievable scenario of one of the nuns entering a chapel and stripping completely naked (in Betts' view, the repression is so intense that this would lead one of the nuns to do such a thing!).
No it's strictly when we focus on the Reverend Mother that Novitiate has any gravitas at all. Pure goodness in the form of Sister Mary Grace resigns because she simply can't take the Reverend Mother's unflinching, cruel treatment of her innocent charges. And watch Leo pounce when she humiliates her nuns-in- training at the Chapter of Faults, a group meeting where novices kneel on the floor, confessing self-failings.
Sister Hosea Rupprecht of the Catholic News Service bemoans how Betts' depiction is manipulative and presents an unfair understanding of the ritual: "This aspect of monastic life was meant to encourage rigorous morality, and keep the community healthy by cleansing it of festering secrets. Yet, as portrayed here, it will certainly strike even some Catholics as extreme. All the more so, since Reverend Mother manipulates the process to her own ends."
Perhaps the most enjoyable scenes are where the Reverend Mother gets her comeuppance, first at the hands of a priest who's been sent to chastise her for failing to enact the Vatican II reforms and then by Cathleen's Mom, who notes that her daughter has lost a great deal of weight and threatens to pull her out of the convent if nothing is done.
Novitiate does well in providing us a nice history lesson in regards to the effect the Vatican II reforms had on the church. Nonetheless, Betts chooses to present an extreme view of monastic life and fails to capture both the good and the bad in her characters. For a more nuanced depiction of Catholic devotees, see Greta Gerwig's "Lady Bird"-where sympathy for the characters is much more paramount as well as balanced.
The critically acclaimed religious themed drama, about a nun in training (in the 1960s) who starts to question her faith. It was written and directed by debut feature filmmaker Margaret Betts, and it stars Margaret Qualley, Melissa Leo, Dianna Agron, Morgan Saylor, Liana Liberato, Julianne Nicholson and Denis O'Hare. The film has received mostly positive reviews from critics, and it's also garnered prestigious awards attention as well. I found it to be really well made and involving.
At the age of seven, Cathleen Harris (Qualley) was introduced to Catholicism by her agnostic mother (Nicholson), for educational purposes. Cathleen feels drawn to the religion, at the great disappointment of her mother, and at the age of 17 she decides to join a convent as a postulate. She's trained by the extremist Reverend Mother Marie St. Clair (Leo). Reverend Mother tortures the young women she trains, in an obsessive (outdated) belief that it will bring them closer to God, and she rejects modern reforms ordered by the Second Vatican Council. Her methods really put Cathleen, and her faith, to the ultimate test, while Cathleen also must struggle with natural temptations of desire.
The film is a lot like a female Catholicism version of 'WHIPLASH' to me, that's what the relationship between Cathleen and Reverend Mother feels like. It's very intense, hard to watch, and at times pretty emotional. Leo is also fantastic in the role, and I definitely wouldn't be surprised to see her get an Oscar nomination for it. The film is also a great examination of what faith and commitment to faith meant for these women at that time. It's definitely an interesting, and emotionally involving, movie to watch.
Wow, the film may be slow to build up for the finale, but the finale is very profound. I am still rendered speechless and am very saddened by the unintended consequences of the reforms. Having the entire world and the entire reason of existence being invalidated is unimaginable. The film finished for twenty minutes already and I am still having a heavy chest. It is a very profound film.
Although the film doesn't have drill sergeants, it has a super-committed Mother Superior (Melissa Leo). She will punish swiftly with, for instance, the girls kneeling to walk while saying Hail Mary's or disciplining themselves with knotted ropes. But the real torture is the interior questioning of the young women about even the existence of God.
Nevertheless they are moving to become "brides of Christ," which when they dress in bridal gowns for the actual marriage borders on satire, hokum, or downright pathos. As more than one postulant avers, "Where is He?" daily, the girls are giving themselves to God while not feeling the divine presence.
Perhaps the biggest problem is the emergence in the early '60's of Vatican II, that progressive body of prelates that liberalized the Church and demoted the nuns. So much for that disrespect as 90,000 pure souls took the last train outta there.
The central postulant, Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), has a tough time with her vocation, much less her attraction to another hopeful. The complications of sexual yearnings in young women is a nicely figurative way of showing the challenges of taking 17 year old girls from a normal life, which usually involves young men.
Cathleen's mother, Julianne Nicholson (Nora Harris), serves as the vox populi questioning the sanity of the process as she is losing her daughter to these unknown forces of religion. For Catholics, Novitiate is a confirmation; for non-Catholics it's a gloss on the complexity of Catholic faith.
"Novitiate" attempts to be a 21st century version of Fred Zinnemann's fantastic 1959 film "The Nun's Story" which was about a Belgian nun's (Audrey Hepburn) struggles with her faith, profession as a nurse, and conflicting loyalties during WW2. "Novitiate" was so inspired by "The Nun's Story" that it has one of its characters make a direct reference to it.
"Novitiate" is the story of "Cathleen Harris" (Margaret Qualley) the only child of a broken home being raised by her mother (Julianne Nicholson). Although not Catholic and being raised in a de facto agnostic household, shy Cathleen "falls in love" with God after being inspired by the devotion of one of her kindly nun teachers at the parochial school she attends on scholarship. At age 17 and against her mother's objections, she joins a cloistered convent with the intention of making it her life.
However, it's 1964 and the Vatican II Council is under way with its intention of drawing Catholicism into the 20th century. That doesn't sit well with the convent's ultra-conservative Mother Superior (Melissa Leo). She's quite content with her Order's medieval traditions of public confessional debasement and self-inflicted scourging by the penitent. (Yeah, it's laid on a bit thick.)
Most of the movie is about how Cathleen and her fellow rose-cheeked novitiates struggle with both their faith and convent's strict rules especially its enforced silences. Cathleen appears to adapt better than most, but then "Sister Emanuel" (Rebecca Dayan) joins the convent and that's where the movie really lost me.
As stated above, the movie makes reference to "The Nun's Story" in which a novitiate admits that film was her inspiration to become a nun despite it being "unrealistic" because Audrey Hepburn was so beautiful. Unrealistic? In "Novitiate," most of the nuns range from very pretty to downright gorgeous! Also, this convent appears to have come stocked with a full make-up department because all the young sisters are always glammed-up!
Yet, it really gets dumb with Sister Emanuel's entrance. Once Cathleen takes a few quick glances at the beautiful Emanuel (Ms. Dayan has former model written all over her) she suddenly decides that she belongs to the Pink Team. Her instant transformation from devout novitiate to starving (literally) for lesbian intimacy was just ridiculous. How dumb is it? Well, it reminded me of those 1990's straight-to-video "erotic thrillers" in which if two attractive women were alone in a room together then they wouldn't be able to keep their hands off each other. At least, those "erotic thrillers" usually had a few lines of dialogue to try to explain why two women became instantaneous lesbian lovers, but "Novitiate" doesn't even have that to explain why Cathleen and Emanuel are suddenly groping and giving each other passionate kisses. The only explanation is that Ms. Qualley and Ms. Dayan are both extremely attractive and the producers clearly thought it'd be "hot" to watch them "get it on." It's so blatantly prurient that's insulting.
Undoubtedly, the film-makers deluded themselves that they were making serious points as to the sexual tensions that had to exist in Catholic convents because after all everyone is obsessed with sex, right? So, we get scenes of sisters being unable to "master their domain" and the "nuns-gone-wild" stuff between Cathleen and Emanuel. It pretty much undercuts everything else including the Vatican II conflicts, Ms. Leo's and Ms. Nicholson's performances, and the shallow conversations as to faith.
In sum: a stupid, prurient film with pretensions as to seriousness, depth and art. "The Nun's Story" is STILL vastly better, more serious and realistic than this silly bit of Maria-Monk-lite.
I wish I could have given this film 0 stars because that's what it deserves.
As Cathleen enters the convent she is largely unaware of these changes as she is the child of broken home without much religious upbringing. Indeed, her mother (a fierce Juliette Nicholson) is close to the furthest thing from a pious mom.
Cathleen's new mom is Reverand Mother (Melissa Leo). Novitiate training as depicted here is like a boot camp for would be nuns, and the Reverand Mother is very much the drill instructor who rebels against Vatican II's reforms. Bett's direction and script is compassionate towards the young women deciding if their choice to devote themselves to God is the correct one. The acting by the young ladies depicts their vulnerability in a believable manner, even if the screenplay is occasionally a bit off-key and tonally inconsistent. (the use of the term 'Spaced Out', while not an outright anachronism, sticks out here). Denis O'Hare's Archbishop also feels too flip in context.
Melissa Leo's performance as the Reverand Mother has gotten the bulk of the attention. It's a powerhouse on a technical level. Still, it feels as if a bit more subtlety would have strengthened it. Certainly, Betts' script and, likely, Direction positions Leo's performance in a certain slot, but one wishes you saw the character in a more nuanced light. To look under her veil as it were.
Towards the end, NOVITIATE creates certain parallels with Pawel Pawlikowski's Oscar winning IDA. But, IDA was a sublimely modulated masterwork - no shame in not measuring up to that level. But, NOVITIATE can stand on it's own because of its acting and sensitively rendered Direction.
The opening moments of the film offer statements about the impact of the 1960s Vatican II as instigated by Pope John XXIII on the life in the convents around the world. 1964. Cathleen Harris (Margaret Qualley), in her late teens, has resided at the Convent of the Beloved Rose in her home state in the American south for close to two years, first as a postulant for six months, before taking her first vows to become a novice. Unlike the other postulants and novices, Sister Cathleen was raised in a household without religion, let alone Catholicism. As such, her decision to become a nun, which went against abusive father (Chris Zylka) and her divorced mother's wishes (the mother is portrayed in a stunning manner by Julianne Nicholson), may be more secure in her mind than her colleagues for which this life course may be more bred within them. The convent is led by the Mother Abbess, Reverend Mother Marie Saint Clare (a brilliant Melissa Leo), whose entire life is this convent off of where she not stepped foot in forty years. Reverend Mother believes she is the voice of God within the walls of the convent, and thus does not tolerate any of the sisters questioning her authority. She also believes that the Catholicism which she has known all her life is perfect. When she receives an edict regarding the Second Vatican Council - more commonly referred to as Vatican II - which, opened in 1962 as a process to make the Catholic church more open to modern ideals, she refuses to implement any of the changes, let alone discuss the edict with any of the sisters, especially with the likes of Sister Mary Grace (Dianna Agron), the Mistress of Postulants and Novices who has more contemporary views of the church. Sister Cathleen's drive to become a nun is set against this backdrop, her process which is not as easy as it appears to the others, and whether she makes it to nun is affected by the Reverend Mother's strict methods and refusal to modernize. Her challenge to her beliefs and needs is brought into focus by the arrival of the sensuous Sister Emanuel (Nora Harris).
The ritualism, the meaning of bells, the confession of faults, and the interaction of the young girls waiting to become novices and postulates is all painted subtly and with style. This is an exceptionally fine film that deserves a large audience.
it is not a promotional movie for the nun-society,and i will hope that it does not scare to many away from trying a nuns life,cause we have all benefited the chores and efforts given to us,especially through health care services ,kindergardens and caretaking for the people living in the shadows.
i still wonder what happened to the main character...........
This is one of the better, maybe the best, of the movies I have seen this year. Maybe part of that is being a lifelong Catholic and remembering Vatican II and the changes this spawned in the Church. I was a boy about the same age the girls are depicted here in the early 1960s.
The movie deals with two distinct but interrelated stories. The most significant is the impact Vatican II changes had on cloistered Nuns. Melissa Leo, in a best-actress quality performance, is the Reverend Mother. She has not been outside the grounds for 40 years and she oversees the whole operation, only answering to the Archbishop. She is exact and she is stern, if she thinks a young girl does not have the right stuff she will send them home without review. When she gets instructions from the Archdiocese for changes she is stricken and saddened.
The other story is about a teenage girl from a dysfunctional and mostly Atheistic family. For reasons only she knows she was drawn to this "marriage with Jesus." She is played extremely authentically by Margaret Qualley (daughter of Andie MacDowell) as Cathleen, eventually Sister Cathleen.
The BD has a very informative "extra" showing the writer/director and 5 of the key cast being asked questions and their providing answers to the research and the making of the movie.
Superb movie, a bit underrated in my opinion.
The only nice thing I can say about it is photography, thus 1 star.
Margaret Qualley ("The Leftovers", and real life daughter of Andie MacDowell) stars as Cathleen, a 17 year old girl whose small town life included parents who divorced when she was younger. Her mother (an excellent Julianne Nicholson) is a foul-mouthed, chain-smoking agnostic who embraced the responsibility of raising Cathleen, even after the father stormed out of their lives. As they stand face-to- face and Cathleen announces she is going to become a nun and proclaims "I'm in love with God", we all share the parent's pain as a mother stares back incredulously, knowing full well a 17 year old is incapable of making such a decision on her own.
At the convent we meet Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo), a woman so devoted to the cause that she hasn't stepped foot outside the fortress-like walls in 40 years. As she explains to the nuns-in- training that her voice is God's voice, it brought back memories of Alec Baldwin's surgeon character in MALICE (1998) stating in a perfunctory manner, "I am God."
The story follows (at least) three stories: the Reverend Mother, Cathleen and the other nuns, and that of the powerless parent. The setting is the early 1960's and an ordinance known as Vatican II has just been issued. It was designed to restructure the Catholic Church (for the first time in a century) and have it become more contemporary – allowing the nuns to better serve society. Unfortunately, many of the long-term nuns did not embrace the changes and it rocked their daily routines. Adding salt to their wounds was the fact that the changes were mandated from Rome with no input from the nuns – signaling the beginning of a still-present lack of power for women in the church. This is oh so evident in a scene with the Archbishop (Dennis O'Hare) explaining to Reverend Mother how she missed the "subtext" in the suggestions.
Most of the film focuses on the group of girls who are shielded from the outside world and its temptations as they go through the rigorous training on the path to solidifying their love of God. What we see is that these girls are simply trying to figure out their own identities as the system works to drain human nature from their souls. The scenes of solitary prayer are powerful as they each wrangle with their beliefs, faith and true self. Typical teenage giddiness is on display as the girls wear their white dresses and veils on the day of vows. Their elation around the campfire is more creepy than comforting. Most painful of all are the "circle of faults" that Reverend Mother subjects the girls to. Morgan Saylor ("Homeland" daughter) plays one of the Sisters and has one of the most gut-wrenching scenes in the film. Most of us have never been through anything close to this and would label it cruel and manipulative.
Cathleen's mother visits when allowed and dutifully shows up for all ceremonies. We can feel her pain as she strives to will some common sense into her daughter – never giving up hope. It's crucial to note that Ms. Betts does not attempt to take down the church. Rather her story seeks to explore what inspires these young girls to make such a decision, and the emotional turmoil that goes into it. The film kicks off with a narrated "We were women in love", and ends with a footnote explaining that 90,000 nuns left the convents after Vatican II. If you can connect with the hopeful girls, perhaps the film will have the intended emotional gut punch for which it strives. For the rest of us, we are left with no real explanation, nothing to uplift us, and the crushed spirit of a 40 year devoted nun. On the bright side, the arrival of an exciting, new filmmaker is always worthy of celebration no need to comfort me.
The film opens in 1954. Though non-religious, Nora Harris (Julianne Nicholson) takes her young daughter Cathleen to church. Her marriage is falling apart and her abusive husband leaves. Later, religious sisters visit their home and offer Cathleen a scholarship to attend a newly-opened Catholic school, where she feels the presence of God. At 17, Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) believes she has been called to become a nun and enters a convent as a postulant, over her mother's objections.
At the Order of the Sisters of Blessed Rose, Cathleen befriends her fellow postulants, Sissy (Maddie Hasson), Emily (Liana Liberato), Evelyn (Morgan Saylor), and others, and meets Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo), a stern headmistress. As the girls progress towards becoming novitiates, Reverend Mother becomes alarmed with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. She believes the changes will destroy their way of life, and tries to resist them despite warnings from Archbishop McCarthy (Denis O'Hare).
Things get complicated when Cathleen feels an awakening sexuality, to which she responds by starving herself. This drives her into the arms of a newcomer, Sister Emanuel (Rebecca Dayan). Also starved for physical affection, the two share a forbidden moment of tenderness. Meanwhile, Reverend Mother grows despondent as she is powerless to stop Vatican II from liberalizing their religious order, undermining her authority and resulting in a mass exodus of nuns.
Writer/director Margaret Betts, who is not Catholic, betrays her lack of familiarity with Catholicism when it comes to a few details most audiences probably won't notice. Betts grew up in privilege as the daughter of a wealthy developer who was also close friends with former President George W. Bush. She described her early years as unfocused and self-absorbed, until Laura Bush advised her to spend more time volunteering. As a wealthy socialite, I can see how she would take a dim view of the self-sacrifice and self-denial nuns are called to embrace. However, Novitiate is tender and at times unexpectedly sympathetic.
Melissa Leo was nominated for several awards for her portrayal of Reverend Mother. Although she's generally considered a Nurse Ratched-like character, I ended up feeling sympathy for her. As head of the convent, she commands unquestioning obedience from the other nuns, yet she's powerless to stop the reforms because the Church commands unquestioning obedience over her. The scene in which she reads a letter outlining changes from the diocese like a death sentence is heart-wrenching. Mike D'Angelo at AVClub was right when he argued Reverend Mother should have been the protagonist of this film.
Margaret Qualley, a model and trained ballet dancer, also appeared in one of the best films of 2016: The Nice Guys. She plays a completely different role in Novitiate. There are plenty of actors and actresses (Kristen Stewart comes to mind), who are basically the same person in every film. You know what you're getting when you see their name on the marquee. I'm most impressed when I see an actor or actress and don't even recognize them because they disappear so completely into their role. Margaret Qualley is such an actress. I'm looking forward to seeing what she does in the future.
Novitiate isn't without problems. Sister Cathleen Harris wasn't born Catholic and we never see her baptized or confirmed. It's briefly brought up when she initially enters the convent as a postulant but then never mentioned again. It's not possible to become a Catholic nun without being a member of the Catholic Church, but even if they made an exception, shouldn't her lack of religious background play some role in her experience at the convent? Wouldn't the others doubt her sincerity, or treat her as an outsider? That would set up personal conflicts that add drama to the film. Instead, it's just a glaring plot hole.
Overall, Novitiate is an emotional roller coaster and a solid film if you don't know much about Catholicism. Accurate and non-stereotypical portrayals of Catholics and Catholicism are almost unheard of in American film, so Novitiate is notable for its tender and sympathetic portrayal. It's more about the girls' relationship with God and each other, and the limits of pursuing an ideal, than anything else.