Review: Novitiate

6 10

PLOT: A teenaged girl enters the convent to become a nun, which requires a year of intense training and discipline.

REVIEW: It's often easier to flat-out hate a movie than to feel ambivalent about it. My problem with NOVITIATE, the directorial debut of Margaret Betts, isn't that it's a bad movie, because I don't think it necessarily is, but it simply didn't connect to me in any meaningful way. I have no doubt that the movie will move certain people, that some will argue in favor of its resonance and significance. It left me cold, and I don't think it has to do with the storyline or setting, but how the writer-director's has framed her tale and her opaque main character.

Set during the 1960s, NOVITIATE follows the trials of Sister Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), a teenager who has decided to follow her heart and become a nun, despite the fact she wasn't raised in a religious household. Cathleen has answered the calling, as it were, and the title refers to the period of boot-camp like training she has to endure in order to achieve her goal, which is being married to God. Overseen by a very strict Mother Superior (Melissa Leo), Cathleen and her fellow sisters-in-training must learn what it's like to not only be devoted to her faith but to live without any kind of meaningful human contact or affection.

Qualley is good in the role, expressing the right amount of silent intensity and subtle doubt the character must feel, but I never truly understood Cathleen. We meet her when she's a small girl, and a few visits to the church (and enough bad experiences with her feuding father and mother) evidently awaken the yearning to become a nun within her. I remained unconvinced that we had been given enough evidence that Cathleen truly felt this way, that it was more of a hastily constructed plot machination than a genuinely earned character development, and this problem stuck with me throughout. If I could never understand why Cathleen was going through these severe rituals, how could I become truly engrossed in her arc? When it comes time to starve or flagellate herself, I was still wondering, Why has she chosen this life?

Essentially the story tracks the ins and outs of what it takes to become a nun, and if that sounds appealing to you then NOVITIATE will surely scratch that itch. The details are intriguing, to be sure, but there's only so much praying, forced silences and solemn whispering a fellow like me can handle. Betts is good at showing us the hardships these girls must endure - mostly of a psychological nature - but at a certain point the drama appears to flatline and we're only watching rituals being performed without dramatic urgency. A third act wrinkle in the plot, dealing with the forbidden attraction between Cathleen and another woman (Rebecca Dayan) comes a little too late to bring spark to the proceedings.

This material does lend itself to being slightly campy, and indeed NOVITIATE frequently flirts with being melodramatic, but not in any way that will amuse you. Often it's deadly serious, and Betts will slow things down to a crawl here and there which left me praying for a swift conclusion. NOVITIATE is a hair over two hours and certainly feels like it, although perhaps it's not quite fair to call it boring since the actors are good enough to keep us mildly interested. The standout for many will be Melissa Leo, who gives a very showy performance as the stuck-in-the-past Mother Superior, who rules the convent with an iron fist and hesitates to conform to the new rules being doled out by the church. (The film takes place just when Vatican II was being introduced, which brought with it many modern reforms that traditional Catholics scoffed at.) Leo's performance is certainly eye-catching, but also a bit over-the-top, a very theatrical turn.

Technically the film is well done; it looks lovely, with appropriate attention to detail in all the main departments. You get a lot of time to look at those details, that's for sure, and the same amount of time to look at your watch.

Source: JoBlo.com



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