Set right around the release of the Vatican II documents, which completely revolutionized the Catholic church in the eyes of the world and within the church itself, Novitiate casts a fresh take on the inner workings of a convent, but flounders a bit with its inability to maintain focus on its lead characters’ point of view.
It’s 1964 and Cathleen (Margaret Qually), who grew up with an agnostic mother, Nora (Julianne Nicholson), and an absent father, decides to commit to becoming a nun at the very young age of seventeen. Against her mother’s wishes, Cathleen feels this decision is her calling. She has always wanted an ideal kind of love, a love she can give herself completely to, and so she finds this kind of love with God. Enduring training under the immensely strict and occasionally violent Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo) in the midst of underlying changes at the church, Cathleen and her fellow nuns-in-training grapple with some of their own secret thoughts and uncertainty regarding religion and what it has taught them.
Some of the character dynamics are intriguing with a lot of potential. Of all the characters, Nora, who’s far from religious and is constantly concerned with her daughter’s well-being and mistreatment within the sisterhood, and Reverend Mother, an astute and strictly practicing Catholic nun, who are the standouts. Although they don’t necessarily get the most screen time, their characteristics are less ambiguous than everyone else’s and it makes their journeys as characters easier to follow.
Moreover, the performances by Julianne Nicholson and Melissa Leo are superb. The struggle to make her daughter see sense, while at the same time being reluctantly supportive of her decisions despite obviously not agreeing is palpable and Nicholson does a fantastic job relaying Nora’s emotions through her facial expressions. On the other hand, Melissa Leo’s turn as the staunch and controlling Mother Superior deserves an award. She was a standout and her journey from ruling with an iron fist to losing her grip on her control and herself is excellent. Leo is fantastic and really the highlight of the film in a way Cathleen and the other nuns are not.
It’s refreshing to see a story about the Catholic church focus on the nuns and the dynamics between them away from the men of the church. So often,we’ve seen stories about archdiocese, priests, and the vatican, with men taking center stage. However, Novitiate centers around the power dynamics, control, intimacy, and female insecurities and uncertainty surrounding the sisterhood, God, and religion. These themes all play major roles within the film’s narrative, but at the same time they’re not fully realized.
Although there are a lot of great themes and character beats in the film, the point of view isn’t distinctive. The trouble with the film is that it’s never clear which character path it wants to take. The movie begins with Cathleen, with her doing the voice-over. Then, there are the flashbacks to her childhood. However, her path towards choosing to become a nun isn’t developed very well. Cathleen claims she wants to feel a love unlike any other and believes loving God wholly will provide an emptiness in her and seal her vision of an ideal love. And so this is the reason she devotes herself, but the reason comes off as superficial given that there wasn’t enough buildup to her decision and in much of her actions thereafter.
Themes of repression and how wanting more than what God can give permeates even the strictly religious setting at the church. It provides for some fascinating insight, but the follow-through isn’t quite as strong as the setup. Novitiate boasts strong performances from its cast, namely Melissa Leo, whose character struggles the most with the changes and is intent on holding on to the past and her power with everything she’s got. But while Novitiate delves into some fascinating and deeply entrenched issues within the Catholic church, it ultimately fails its main character and in providing any further depth to her.