Reading the synopsis of ‘Novitiate’ led me to believe that the drama would be standard “edgy” festival fodder: a young girl enters a monastery to begin the preparatory process of becoming a nun, only to have her faith shaken. Although this sounds like the usual religion-bashing fare, the film actually treads the middle ground and subjectively teaches a piece of Catholic history that’s not widely known outside the Church.
Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) wasn’t born into religion. As a pre-teen, she came learn of the Catholic Church on her own. Her agnostic single mother (Julianne Nicholson) decided to take her to mass one week and Cathleen immediately fell in love with the feeling of God and the gospel. She transferred to the local Catholic school and, upon graduating, decided to go against her mother’s will and dedicate her life to God by becoming a nun.
I know little of the specifics of the Catholic Church’s clerical process, so I found everything that lies ahead to be very interesting. As we learn about the strict and rigorous weeding-out and training process, one step of which is titled “novitiate,” we dive into a series of well-drawn characters. By emotionally connecting with them, we’re able to understand how they’re affected by the major changes that the Vatican announced at that time.
In the mid-1960s, Vatican II made major changes to the doctrine of the Catholic Church. It had been more than 100 years since revisions were last made, so when more than a dozen new ones were announced, many dedicated and devout members of the Church struggled to accept them. In ‘Novitiate’, we watch as several characters from different walks of life – newcomers, lifetime members, staunch letter-of-the-law followers, and some more adaptable – learn about the new standards. Some are able to continue on, some struggle, and some break. Watching the various scenarios unfold is effectively educational in the sense that it makes you wonder how you’d take the news if you were in their habits.
‘Novitiate’ is a gorgeously shot and masterfully crafted film. It immerses you in the story, mood and settings through cinematography, locations and music. With ease, the highly capable actors bring you into the mindsets of their characters. Qualley (‘The Leftovers’) gives a breakthough performance. As the brutally strict Reverend Mother, Melissa Leo is as great as ever. And in a small role, Dianna Agron (‘Glee’) shows her acting chops, which she hasn’t really been able to do in her career until now.
Don’t be surprised if ‘Novitiate’ makes its way into next year’s Oscar race.