Novitiate Review: The Crossroads of Love and Sacrifice

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Changes in the Catholic Church have always raised controversy. In just the past few years, for example, Pope Francis has made adjustments to the Church’s viewpoints and relaxed its take on gay marriage. It’s stated early on in Novitiate to the incoming class of sisters that Catholicism is different from all other religions because it requires love and sacrifice. That, however, is true of every worthwhile relationship a person enters, religious or not, romantic or not. Through Margaret Betts’ script and direction, Novitiate is an in depth exploration of how sacrifice overtook love, and how adhering to archaic tradition buried it even further in God’s supposed house.

The story follows Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), a young woman raised by a progressive single mother (Julianne Nicholson) in the 1950s and ’60s who didn’t raise her on a religion but offered it to her at an age where she might start to understand its value, allowing her to make the choice herself. To her mother’s surprise, one trip to church evolves into a fascination and love of God for Cathleen, leading her to leave her life behind and become a nun at the age of 17.

It’s most important that love is what drew Cathleen to pursue sisterhood. She seems like the perfect candidate for what the Catholic Church would want in its ranks, exhibiting a genuine eagerness to display compassion and grow it in her surroundings. But first she has to earn the approval of the Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo), a strict traditionalist who goes so far as to hide the Church’s progress with the Vatican II set of practices that came about in the early 1960s. She’s a Nurse Ratched-type adversary, leaning hard on her position of power to inflict harm in a place founded on love. Leo is, naturally, terrific in every aspect, as the career she’s led until now would make us hope and think she would be.

Qualley doesn’t quite hold the same power. While generally believable, she occasionally struggles with the dramatic depths the film requires her to go to. But then that’s also a problem with the overall tone. Betts has made a film that doesn’t handle its melodrama as well as it could due to the stronger, quieter first half. This is a story that requires attention and detail, much in the same vein as Scorsese’s religious masterstroke from last year, Silence. But where that film’s emotional beats never felt unearned, this one doesn’t hit the right note at some pivotal moments. And like SilenceNovitiate can sometimes feel like a test of endurance for the audience, even though this film is about 40 minutes shorter.

But even when the drama doesn’t quite land, Betts put in the work to create a film of soothing elegance that mirrors the appeal of congregated spirituality. Thrusting forth its story of what women who wanted to give themselves to God were subjected to, Novitiate is never uninteresting. But there is a better film trying to peak out of this merely good one. Grade: B

By Matt Dougherty

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