Film Review – Novitiate
There’s been a lot of talk lately about the toxicity of film culture towards women (harassment and rape etc.) One of the possible solutions proposed is getting more women in positions of power so different relationship dynamics can take over. There are have been several initiatives to promote women directors put in place before Weinstein was outed as a creeper, and recent box office successes like Wonder Woman aren’t hurting the cause any. Hopefully more women will be given the chance to direct, and it is not just lip service from studios to look good. Part of making all of this happen is having the press cover these movies – for good or for bad. Which is why I was totally disheartened to be one of only two reviewers who showed up for the press screening of Novitiate, the feature film debut of Margaret Betts. The other reviewer was also a woman, and we both expressed our frustration with the Seattle dudes not showing up for this film. The trailer looked really good, and considering some of the crap ass movies I’ve seen male reviewers write about, I wonder what they had to do that was a better use of their time. Novitiate is a really good movie, but if it doesn’t get the press coverage it deserves, people aren’t going to know about it. I am calling you out Seattle reviewers! Where the hell were you? (I can accept that some might have already seen it at film festivals, but come on. Everybody?)
Novitiate tells the story of Cathleen Harris (Margaret Qualley) who – while not raised in a Catholic household – attends Catholic school and experiences her calling to become a nun at seventeen. Her mother Nora (Julianne Nicholson), who has mostly raised Cathleen on her own, is aghast her daughter wants to give up all contact with the world at such a young age. Cathleen tries to make her mother understand the love she feels for God is more than just a youthful infatuation with an idea, and forges ahead even when her mother remains firmly against it. Cathleen, now Sister Cathleen, enters the convent in 1964 with the full intention of becoming a bride of Christ and meets other women who greatly affect her new life: fellow postulants, her mentor – a young newly-professed nun Sister Mary Grace (Dianna Agron), and the Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo). Life is hard for the Postulants, and will only get harder once they reach their next step in the order and become Novitiates. Their future will be devoted to love and sacrifice, and the sooner they realize what they are in for, the sooner they can decide if that is what they really want.
This is a lovely movie that explores why one would want to give up the sensuous world for a life of routine and subservience. I read one review that suggested this movie verges on nunsploitation, and I found that to be waaay off base. There is sexuality portrayed here, but it doesn’t feel exploitative. Maybe if it had been more leery, I would have felt that way. But it reads as a legitimate exploration of how young women might cope in a situation where they are discouraged from having even casual friendships. (They are not there for each other; they are there for God.)
While Sister Cathleen’s story arc is interesting, the film really engaged me with its portrayal of the Mother Superior. She has devoted her life to God (is his literal bride in fact) and the changes she faces because of Vatican II appall her. In an effort to make the church more relevant to the current times, the Second Vatican Council made some significant changes to the lives of nuns in the mid 1960s. They were no longer required to wear the habit and were forbidden from administering extreme punishments. Which sounds great! Except for the fact that they were no longer considered any more special to god than any other woman. If one has dedicated one’s life to a strict ideal promising the favor of God, it’s a little hard to let that go. The Reverend Mother goes from strict disciplinarian to borderline torturer at the thought of her life’s devotion being reduced to nothing. It’s the heart of this film. Why would anyone devote their lives to God, if there was no payoff? And while some women still found meaning in nunhood, many others did not and left their orders.
This is an interesting drama with great performances. I might have had Sister Cathleen go the other way in the end (no spoilers!) but I understand why Betts wrote it the way she did. I really enjoyed this film, and I hope others find their way to it. I don’t usually go for high-minded dramas (usually the thing everyone is being so dramatic about is boooooooooring) but I was engrossed in this story. Watch it; it’s good.