Movie Review: ‘NOVITIATE’ – Sister Act-ing Up

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

NOVITIATE

Rated R, 123 minutes
Directed by: Margaret Betts
Starring: Margaret QualleyDianna AgronLiana Liberato, Julianne Nicholson, Melissa Leo

The common school of thought in Hollywood is that stories about nuns don’t sell – but in fact, they actually do! From 1947’s cutting-edge Powell-Pressburger thriller BLACK NARCISSUS, to when Audrey Hepburn donned a habit in 1959’s THE NUN’S STORY, to 1992’s comedic farce SISTER ACT, to 2008’s tense drama DOUBT, there have been all sorts of cinematic tales about that kind of sisterhood. Let’s also not forget about DEAD MAN WALKING, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, AGNES OF GOD and, of course, NUNS ON THE RUN. Ironically, though these women married to God take a vow of poverty, making films about them is quite the lucrative business. Writer-director Maggie Betts’ NOVITIATE puts its own unique stamp on the subgenre, telling a coming-of age story for one woman and the church itself. It’s a blistering, haunting portrait of commitment, sacrifice and dedication – one that eases you into its world with elegant precision. Deeply enthralling, it’s as provocative as it is progressive.

Introspective, sensitive, seventeen-year-old Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) has just fallen in love. But not with just any boy – God. Drawn in by the mystery and romance of a life driven by worship and servitude, she’s heard the calling and chosen to answer it. Her loving, headstrong single mom Nora (Julianne Nicholson, whose masterful precision and pathos should catch awards attention) will have none (nun?) of this as it means losing her daughter to something she herself doesn’t believe and understand. Cathleen joins the Order of the Sisters of Blessed Rose, a picturesque convent overseen by tyrannical disciplinarian Reverend Mother Marie St. Claire, who demands excellence and enforces harsh punishments. As Cathleen, who’s struggling with feelings about faith and sexuality, rises in the ranks from postulate to novitiate (the stage prior to full-fledged nun), the Church is experiencing similar sweeping changes in the form of Vatican II. Mother Superior is reticent to accept those radical changes, clinging to the past ways, sending her into an existential crisis. With everyone locked in a state of inner-conflict, it’s amazing anyone’s got the time to do the work.

Even though we’ve seen cloistered living shown cinematically before, Betts’ thoughtful pondering on these women’s trespasses, travails and tribulations is refreshing. Her technique for world-building is astonishing. I never thought a film about this spiritual process (which I’m not a part of) could be so electric and enthralling. I also never thought of nuns being so frisky. She introduces the “rules of the world” with a graceful touch. The location augments the narrative’s atmospheric tension. Climaxing on the reading of Vatican II was a brilliant way to sustain the taut, stifling atmosphere. She incorporates that world’s main characters terrifically. It takes quite the director to reign in Leo, who, for me, consistently tends to be too hammy in most of her roles. However,  Leo delivers a masterful take on the conflicted nun here. That said, for those who love her over-the-top qualities more than I, Betts does carve out one sequence where Leo is allowed to really go for it, literally throwing herself on the altar.

Where it falters is when it comes to the supporting roles as they’re not nearly as defined – a necessary thing in a movie like this. It’s ironic that it’s important to define these young ladies’ personalities while their journey is that of shunning a sense of self. While I would’ve valued more of a GIRL INTERRUPTED approach when it came to the supporting ensemble, I do appreciate that Betts allows a few moments to let those characters shine – like Sister Emily (Liana Liberato, who brings a sweet, endearing innocence), Sister Mary Grace (Dianna Agron, who brings an enlightened thoughtfulness) and Sister Emanuel (Rebecca Dayan, who brings a resolute grace and vulnerability).

Grade: B

NOVITIATE opens on October 27 in limited release.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.