Starring Margaret Qualley, Julianne Nicholson, Melissa Leo, Dianna Agron, Denis O’Hare
We have seen nuns depicted in so many different films and in so many different ways. Novitiate offers something rather simple, yet original to the world of cinema. An in depth look at what exactly were the requirements and expectations of a young woman choosing a convent and to marry Christ in the 1960’s. Not only does the film far exceed the Bechdel Test, but three women give extraordinary performances and I dare say Melissa Leo hasn’t been this good since Prisoners. Julianne Nicholson (I Tonya, August Osage County) is quickly become a supporting cinematic force and lands one of her best performances in a role that could have just been a throwaway part. She turns what could have been a simplistic mother figure into something multidimensional with limited screen time.
At age 17, Cathleen Harris (Qualley) has been called to join the church and dedicate her life to God. Her single mother Nora (Nicholson) only took her daughter to church a few times, but Cathleen has found purpose, and nothing will change her mind. Learning to live under vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, Cathleen, like many of the other women, come to doubt their purpose during the postulate phase and whether God is actually speaking to them. At the same time Reverend Mother (Leo) is struggling behind the scenes with changes from the Vatican and the new Pope. Her frustration is taken out on the few who achieve novitiate status, which is a vow you take, becoming a temporary bride of Christ.
Nicholson turns what could have been a simplistic mother figure into something multidimensional with limited screen time.
It’s easy to be swept up in the performances of Novitiate, but equal credit must be paid to writer/director Margaret Betts who presents the subject matter even-handedly. The screenplay doesn’t try to sway the audience to hate the church or turn viewers into believers. Early in the film we see Nora taking her young, impressionable daughter to church, not because she is a Christian, but she wants to give Cathleen the opportunity to make up her own mind. Leo isn’t introduced until nearly half way into the film and even then, her Oscar worthy performance lays in wait. Her character is a ticking time bomb of restraint and control boiling. A person who has becomes so sure footed and unchecked in her authority that when questioned, she can’t handle change. Leo gives herself to every role in a way that continually redefines her dedication and acting talent.
At the core of Novitiate is a film about self-discovery. It’s also a film about the divisiveness of belief. It’s an educational and often unnerving experience, mostly thanks to Leo’s performance. The price of admission is worth the combative scene where the two “mothers” meet face to face. “Miss, whatever the f*** you want to be called,” Nora says when the Reverend Mother corrects her on introductions. There are lulls in to the two-hour film, mostly when either Nicholson or Leo are not on screen. While Qualley (The Nice Guys) emotes a lot of her performance without dialogue, she’s often not as interesting without either of the other actresses in on screen.
‘Novitiate’ is fascinating in subject matter and the vehement performances from both Leo and Nicholson are among the seasons best.