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Review: Novitiate

November 3, 2017

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Taking place in the 1960s, when the Catholic Church was facing the changes of Vatican II, Novitiate offers a compelling look at life in the convent that explores why people choose to dedicate their lives to the church.

The film follows Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), a young woman who wasn’t raised overly religious, but surprises her mother (Julianne Nicholson) when she decides to become a nun, spurred on by her experience in Catholic school and seeking a personal relationship with God and Jesus Christ.

She enters the convent alongside a group of other young women who seek the same spiritual fulfilment, but they are put through the ringer by their strict Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo), who is reluctant to the changes happening within the church and is determined to enforce order within the nunnery.

Written and directed by Maggie Betts, crafting an impressive first narrative feature with her other credits being a short film and a documentary, Novitiate is an engaging and well acted film that touches on a lot of interesting themes regarding religious devotion and the Catholic Church.  The film explores both the traditional teachings of Catholicism, and how they were given a relative modernization in the 1960s, pulling off a careful balancing act in its gripping exploration of Vatican II.

While many of the changes that came with it had positive repercussions for women as a whole in society, it also served to greatly diminish the role that nuns play in the church, causing many of them to leave the sisterhood.  Despite being a male-dominated system, the nuns also held a fair amount of power within it up until that point, and fought for their rights as women to be consulted on the changes, something that the Vatican never allowed to happen before the overarching changes were made.

It’s this nuanced approach that makes Novitiate such a compelling work, moving at a deliberate pace and contemplatively exploring the effects that solitude and choosing to live a cloistered life can have on people.  Melissa Leo injects the film with a compelling performance, acting reassuring one moment and menacing the next, brilliantly portraying this deeply conflicted and sometimes terrifying figure who is determined to enforce the old rules by any means necessary.

A version of this review was originally published during the Toronto International Film Festival.

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