I imagine it will be hard for most people to talk about Novitiate without bringing themselves into the conversation. A movie that confronts one of the most prominent religions in American culture that people held close while fighting wars, facing poverty and especially raising children is going to make some people think twice. I myself grew up Catholic: going to Sunday Mass when I was younger, praying before dinner and understanding the presence and basic elements of God and Jesus. I never had a strong interest in religion growing up but understood and respected what it meant to other people, even being occasionally fascinated with the commitment some have to its practices. Even in passing thought, I wondered what it must be like for someone to devote their entire physical and mental effort to a belief or being that isn’t entirely tangible, let alone responsive to his or her efforts. What’s really in the heads of the men and women in the church after years of following a lifestyle and and offering it to the heavens with seemingly no visible or recordable response?
Novitiate plays with that questions in two ways: for a novice and a devout. It’s 1964, and 17-year-old Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) has made a bold decision to devote her life to God by becoming a nun. A quiet, shy flower, Cathleen will do anything to feel the love and warmth of the Lord in her life. She and her fellow postulants (Liana Liberato, Eline Powell, Morgan Saylor) get the real rough ride from their Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo), a 40-year devout who makes her students literally crawl on the sacred grounds if they even partially question her teachings. The young students and even one of their teachers (Dianna Agron) begin quietly questioning if they can truly handle surrendering their lives, while Cathleen’s personal being is tested as she wonders how she can feel the love of God. On top of that, Reverend Mother is taken aback by the issuance of Vatican II and its looser policies that upend her entire life’s work.
As the feature debut for writer/director Margaret Betts (The Carrier), Novitiate is a curious and heavy movie to try to wrangle together. Fortunately, Betts proves herself incredibly capable behind the camera as she moves through scenes with grace. The movie flows fluidly at just a hare over two hours, jumping between the personal awakenings of the young girls and the Reverend Mother’s own crises of faith. Despite scenes that can look like a horror movie one minute and a Sofia Coppola indie drama the next, Betts plays it straight letting the emotion of each scene speak for itself. There are moments where the convent the girls are living at might seem like a cult hideout as they discuss their undying devotion to the church, but Betts is wise enough to show the moments when the girls are huddled in the corner of a staircase discussing what they miss about the outside world. Betts sees humans underneath the black and white cloaks of these young women.
The movie’s main balancing act is managing or even trying to mirror the individual struggles of Cathleen and the Reverend Mother. It might seem that Cathleen, with her inexplicable yet affirmed devotion to following the word of God, would become something of a pupil to Reverend Mother at first, and Betts does give both characters brief scenes together. But Betts keeps the two mostly separate from each other, with their struggles only moderately similar. She concludes that Cathleen’s struggle is merely one of lost intimacy, as a daughter of a broken home without any friends simply looking for something to confide in. Reverend Mother may be the bigger draw story-wise, as she starts as the film’s antagonist before becoming somewhat unraveled. The real question coming from Reverend Mother’s character arc is, how sympathetic can the audience be to her? It’s clear that she’s ruled her convent with an iron fist for many years, physically and psychologically abusing countless other women. But it’s clearly out of her upbringing, she’s clearly a victim of a meaner teacher. When she’s told to lighten up by no less than the actual Pope, it’s actually devastating to her and causes a near-mental breakdown. Even when she tells her fellow Sisters about implementing Vatican II, they act like their hearing about the actual Vatican burning to the ground. Can you blame the Sisters? Can you blame the community of Catholicism? Does it redeem the Reverend Mother? It makes her a fully-formed tragic character and the real crux of the movie.
The driving force of it comes from a forceful performance by Melissa Leo. Straight-faced but stone-cold, Leo’s presence hovers over every scene like a storm cloud. Her voice rarely goes above a whisper, but the stares she gives to everyone around her are louder than bombs. She’s strong but clearly has something incredibly fragile shaking underneath. Same goes for Margaret Qualley, morphing beyond her sex appeal in The Nice Guys and finding her presence as a movie star after bowing out of The Leftovers. Her sullen demeanor is something of constant interest throughout the movie, never being obvious or teetering into boredom. The poise she has screams “movie star,” but the quiet moments she’s given is something that has legitimate pain to it. Even her supporting cast boosts the impact of her character, especially Dianna Agron going leagues away from Quinn Fabray in Glee. Her role seems as a brief cautionary tale for the young girls to know exactly what their doing before it’s too late. It may seem like the actors play their roles like delicate flowers without any real teeth to it, but it’s the smaller moments peppered in that give the movie its edge.
Even after it’s sudden by poignant ending, there’s still questions to ask from Novitiate. I wondered how a movie like this would play in front of a religious audience, even the Pure Flix crowd might have trouble processing this at first. As a straightforward movie, Novitiate is a strong work of quiet drama. As a confrontation of something so protected, it’s damn near revelatory.