Novitiate is a gripping religious melodrama that is as delicate as it is discordant.
Love is a tricky feeling. At times it can be a loving embrace that feels more powerful than anything else on the planet. The world stops and all that matters is that moment between you and them. It is an enchanting moment, one that makes everything else in the world cease to exist. It’s intoxicating, freeing, and eye-opening–all at the same time. But how does one come to terms with that feeling when it does not have a physical embodiment? In other words, how does one love and come to be loved if there is no fulfillment, physical or otherwise?
That is the dilemma that seems to be gripping Cathleen Harris (Margaret Qualley), a beautiful young woman whose less-than-perfect upbringing has led her into the arms of a man–a man that many refer to as God. With a deadbeat absent father (Chris Zylka) and a free-spirited mother (the always thrilling Julianne Nicholson) who never seems anchored to anyone other than Cathleen, the impressionable young lady sees human relationships as dangerous and vulnerable. She seldom understands her mother’s precarious ways, wanting instead a stable environment of love and respect. So, as a means of protecting herself from emotional harm, the Catholic school-educated Cathleen dedicates her life to the Church during its 1960s era of modernization.
Her mother is, of course, beside herself. She cannot understand how her daughter could be drawn to organized religion. After all, she had seldom raised her in that kind of environment. Save for the one time she had taken the young Cathleen to church (as a means of being transparent about it), Nora Harris had never exposed her daughter to the ways of religion. But what Nora does not know is that Cathleen has always had a troubled life, yearning to love and be loved back—something that only God and the Catholic Church could provide. And to the impressionable teenage Cathleen, God seemed to fix all those issues because, at the end of the day, there is no risk of being hurt by an all-seeing, all-hearing entity.
But that is of course not the way of the Church. The Church does hurt–both physically and emotionally, especially when under the control of a particularly Nurse Ratchet-like Reverend Mother (played by the spellbinding Melissa Leo). The ways in which one becomes a nun are brutal and heartbreaking. It requires sacrifice and dedication. It is sadistic and self-deprecating. It is a harrowing experience, one that resembles the drill sergeant routine from Full Metal Jacket more than The Sound of Music. It’s a demoralizing showing that is more upsetting than enlightening. As with most organizations that rely on zealous commitment, the Catholic Church relies on the vulnerable and the weak to thicken its flock–and as Novitiate points out, to find more nuns as well.
Whether it is the vulnerable Sister Cathleen who just wants love or the self-loathing Sister Evelyn (Morgan Saylor), the Church is in the business of finding lonely and vulnerable young women to make up its new novitiates. It’s a depressing examination of nunnery, one that is similar to The Magdalene Sisters and Doubt. And yet, while the brutality is demonstrative of the Church’s larger issues, it is seldom as savage as the former films. Instead, there is a quiet sense of delicacy attached to the film, while also relishing its dark, dreary, cool-hued aesthetic. So while the film showcases the fragility that is inherent to these troubled young women, it also uses everything in its cinematic disposal to paint a disturbing picture of novitiate life.
From the rhythmic sounds of bells, beads, and heel clicks that mimic the film’s and nuns’ routine life to the slow, deliberate pacing, writer-director Margaret Betts’ directorial debut is a polished endeavor. Coupled with the riveting performances from both Melissa Leo and Julianne Nicholson, Novitiate is an excellent debut from the socioculturally aware Betts. And while some of the acting from the younger cast members can be hyperbolic at times, that seldom takes away from the film’s mesmerizing narrative drive.
Furthermore, the film’s adept editing and precise cinematography allows the viewer to be enraptured by the internal struggle that grips young Cathleen’s mind, demonstrating a young woman’s thirst for comfort and love, regardless of where that might come from. Much in the same vein as Terrence Malick’s seminal 1973 film, Badlands, Betts establishes a uniquely enticing look into young women’s burning desire to love and be loved, seldom looking at the flaws that might be inherent to that love. It’s an unsettling characterization, but one that is expertly explored in the ascetic world of Catholicism.
Novitiate is set to be released October 27.