Faith and Punishment: Our Review of ‘Novitiate’

Posted in Festival Coverage, Movies, Theatrical, TIFF 2017 by - November 03, 2017
Faith and Punishment: Our Review of ‘Novitiate’

There is an incredulous, sometimes sarcastic mother who pops in and out of Novitiate, and it’s likely that her views and commentary will be the same of that of the audience.

Raising her daughter by herself, Nora instills in young Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) a sense of curiosity and open-mindedness. So she is rather dismayed then when Cathleen opts to enlist in Catholic school and become a nun, devoting herself to God. It’s a shock to a mother who doesn’t quite know how to react, but also doesn’t know if she should really react at all. At least not yet.

What frames Novitiate as the compelling drama is that it’s set in the 1960s as the Vatican Church maneuvers to change the rules about the faith. That the Church itself is changing as Cathleen and other young women are trying to figure out their lives, and themselves change, creates a subtle tension throughout this quiet, intimate affair.

Most loudly unnerved by changes is The Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo), who doesn’t care too much for modernizing, or doing anything differently, as she rules the girls in her school with an iron fist. She is spiteful, wicked woman, mentally, emotionally, and physically punishing her pupils who are trying to prove themselves chaste and dedicated.

Every so often, Nora returns to visit her daughter, and unleashes some poignant barbs about the lunacy of it all directed at anyone who will listen. She sees Cathleen punish herself, mentally and physically, for thoughts and acts that aren’t worth being punished for. She sees those in any influential role either leave  – as in the case of one tender and loving sister – or embrace the self sacrifice, however unhealthy it becomes.And of course when a new sister arrives on the scene, Cathleen emotionally and sexually curious rises to points virtually uncontrollable.

Novitiate is less about faith in general and more specifically about the women, in particular Cathleen, who are seeking something more powerful and influential in their life. They have futures ahead of them, and Cathleen battles tempting thoughts of love and lust. Her internal conflict is conveyed impressively, in part by the acting but also the writing and direction of Margaret Betts, who immerses the viewer in this world and positions us alongside and young, curious woman.

She is looking ahead while Mother is looking back, wondering what she has made of her life amidst the potential alterations to the Catholic doctrine. This builds to chaos, of course, and Leo is imposing and impressive throughout. In all, Novitiate is thoughtful, deliberate, and intimate, telling a historical drama while avoiding cliches by dedicating time and energy to all the characters involved.

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Anthony is a lover of a good story in any form, on any subject. Tirelessly navigating filmdom, he is equal parts an unbridled idealist and stubborn curmudgeon, trying to strike a balance between head and heart when it comes to pop culture. He pens stories about television, music, the environment, lifestyles, and all things noteworthy and peculiar.