In the wake of Vatican II, thousands of nuns left the Church given that, in an attempt to create a more open and inviting Church, the status of nuns was relegated to the same spiritual status as any other Catholic.
This radical shift is inherently intriguing given its widespread effect, but the scene in Novitiate where Melissa Leo’s Reverend Mother reads out these Vatican II changes plays out more silly than anything else. As Leo holds back tears, the camera cuts to various nun extras looking around shocked and whispering to each other.
Other scenes in Novitiate succeed in delivering a more serious tone. For some reason, this pivotal and climactic moment just doesn’t work.
The film follows Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), who enters the convent just as these Vatican II reforms are coming to light. Reverend Mother is resistant to the changes, however, which causes internal turmoil in the convent.
The origins of Cathleen’s religious conversion is somewhat fascinating. Not because of the home life that sends her to Catholic school and, through that, the convent. No, that all reads conventional. It is Cathleen’s internal coming-to-God moment that is interesting. In voiceover, she proclaims the love that comes with becoming a nun: loving God is “an ideal love” and the young women joining the convent were “women in love.”
There are moments of insight in Novitiate that are engaging. Outbursts of pain and strife. Quiet instances of existential doubt. A grappling between these characters’ desire for human connection and a greater connection with God, where they are taught that they cannot possibly have both.
The overall takeaway of the film, however, is not all that enlightening. The film paints the solitude and sanctuary of the convent with broad strokes. When the scenes do not provide engaging internal struggle, they are presenting conflicts that appear obvious. Of course the teenage sisters will have crises of faith. Of course there will be an oppressive Nurse Ratched figure in the form of Leo. Yes, a character at a pivotal crossroads will ask the Lord for a sign.
What this leads to is an ending that does not have enough emphasis to stick with you. Even with a dramatic cut to black before the film’s final line—the cutting to black between scenes works wonderfully earlier in the film—it is hard to grasp at the larger emotional crux that is being presented.
Instead, the film survives in its smaller moments. Leo and Qualley, in reserved moments of solitude, give life to their characters in ways that the plotting does not otherwise allow for. Their performances and the performances of the supporting cast give more gravitas to the material, and perhaps they alone make Novitiate a worthwhile watch.
As always, thanks for reading!
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)