Director: Maggie Betts
First-time feature director Maggie Betts throws a Hail Mary with her small-scale film Novitiate, but the pass is caught, the prayer is answered, the cliché is complete, because the movie is a no-joke success, a stunning accomplishment that reveals and questions in steady measure, that captures our attention with a simple story that longs to be told. This isn’t real life for the vast majority of us, but Betts dives into a transformative period for a specific group of people, paints a picture of their lives, and dares us not to judge. Novitiate is almost an exposé or a documentary, the action seems so real and so realistically unfathomable, a mix of hatred and love that we can all respond to, even if the setting is as strange and uncomfortable as an alien planet.
Cathleen wasn’t raised in the church, but her single mother took her to mass on occasion and even enrolled her in Catholic school, mostly as a way to give her daughter a quality education and to keep her away from the troubled life that no mother wants to pass on to her daughter. But Cathleen took to the church in a way that her mother never expected, even feeling a calling from God to join a monastery to begin her training to become a nun. First was the postulant period, then the novitiate, a time for girls to seek the word of God before taking their final vows and promising to never leave the abbey again. At the same time as Cathleen’s confusing adolescence, the Catholic Church seeks to become more moderate by changing some of their stances, practices, and beliefs. Many nuns feel abandoned by these new rules, and Cathleen doesn’t understand her place in all this, not hearing God as clearly as she once believed she could.
There are a couple independent segments to discuss when critiquing this film. One is the nunnery, their history, their silences, their methods, their madness. At least, that’s the way I look at it; complete and utter madness. How a person could want this life, could treat others this way, could believe that this is what God is asking them to do, is unfathomable. Religion is fucked up; that’s the simplest way to put it. And this film shows that to us in unblinking fashion. Next is the acting, which is hit and miss, hot and cold, at times wholly supporting the story and at times letting it down completely. Leo was phenomenal, Qualley was OK, but the rest of the girls and her mother were pretty terrible. Quinn from Glee made an appearance, and that was weird, but she actually held her own, even if I had a hard time believing her as a Sister. So the acting was a mixed bag, but I was fascinated by the film itself, and the directing was on point, so the positives strongly outweigh the negatives. A touch of sexuality, a look at abuse in varying forms, a bold slap in the face to the Church; Novitiate has a lot to offer, especially for an indie film, and it deserves our attention.
My rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆