Novitiate is the story of a young girl, Sister Cathleen, played by Margaret Qualley, and her desire to find love and to be loved. As a child, she joins a local Catholic school, despite not being Catholic or raised following any religion in particular. However, she is still entranced by the nuns. Throughout her attendance at this school, Sister Cathleen would engage in her own meditation and prayer, a part of her life that was kept secret from her mother, Nora Harris, who is played by Julianne Nicholson.
As she gets older, Cathleen decides that she, too, will become a nun. Her mother is shocked to learn of this decision, believing that her daughter is throwing her life away. However, there is nothing she can do to stop her.
Upon starting her training, and becoming a postulant, Cathleen discovers that it will not be an easy process. She is confronted with hard work, doubt, and the intimidating Mother Reverend. The Mother Reverend, played by Melissa Leo, is a mean character who thrives in imposing harsh conditions and expectations on the young girls. Her methods, the methods of an older Catholic Church, are the same as those she endured and believes that they must be followed in order to create strong, faithful nuns. One of the best scenes in the film involves the Mother Reverend and it will send chills down your spine.
However, the Church is changing. Vatican II, or the Second Vatican Council, is threatening the nuns’ way of life and the Mother Reverend is doing everything she can to keep it contained. As history shows, the Mother Reverend would not be successful and Catholicism would undergo a series of reforms. How the nuns deal with this is an integral part of the story, and impacts Sister Cathleen.
Novitiate is a well done, thoughtful, and provoking film. It explores the trials of faith and the complications of human sexuality and intimacy. Unfortunately, it takes every opportunity to be too slow of a film. There were some scenes that could have easily been cut down or cut out altogether. At times, it dove too far into the technicalities and rituals of the nunnery, preventing the story from progressing for a few minutes longer. That time adds up.
It would seem that not many people even know about this film. When I went to view it, I was the only person in the auditorium. On top of that, the ticket attendant had no idea what I was talking about when she asked me what I was seeing that night. Despite its faults, the film has a lot to offer viewers.
I encourage you to see Novitiate. I thought about the story, and the obstacles faced by the characters, for the rest of the night. It touches on important topics and highlights struggles that many people deal with, not just nuns.
This review was crossposted with Salt Lake Film Review