It is difficult to explain the sense of calling that one feels on the path toward a life devoted to God. As an ordained minister myself, I found myself resonating deeply with the journey of Cathleen (Margaret Qualley, The Nice Guys), who at the age of seventeen feels that sense of calling to become a nun and despite outwardly expressed opposition from her decidedly nonreligious mother (Julianne Nicholson) moves into that calling by joining a conservative religious order led by a strict disciplinarian Reverend Mother (Oscar winner Melissa Leo).
Written and directed by Margaret Betts, who picked up a Special Jury Award at Sundance for Breakthrough Film Director, Novitiate is a quietly mesmerizing film that features a performance that may very well snag another Oscar nomination for the remarkable Leo, who comes desperately close to crossing that line into caricature yet somehow never crosses it.
Novitiate mostly takes place in the early-to-mid 1960's, a particularly challenging time within the Catholic church as Vatican II brings about reforms within the Church that threaten to disrupt the only way of life that many of these sisters have ever really known.
Betts has a magnificent sense of the inner life of these young woman and their wildly varying reasons for choosing a life of near complete and utter silence within the walls of the convent and, as well, the challenges they face as they move from their initial stage as a postulant and, if successful, into being a novitiate for an expected period of two years that will help determine if, indeed, they are seen as appropriate for life as a nun.
At times, Novitiate has such an inward focus that I found myself reflecting upon the remarkable documentary Into Great Silence. Here, however, Reverend Mother refers to the period that requires complete silence as "Grand Silence," a period of several hours daily that is surrounded by a dedication to disciplined communication and near silence throughout much of the remaining time.
It is clear early in the film that Cathleen is different from many of the others within the convent walls, a young girl who seldom joins in periods of play and talking when they are available and who can often be found in the sanctuary praying alone. She is even more prone to a life of extreme sacrifice, embracing the notion of physical self-discipline for even minor infractions.
Yet, there is always more and Betts brings this out in ways that are both jarring and yet authentic.
Christopher Stark's original music is appropriately meditative and spiritually resonant, while Kat Westergaard's lensing somehow manages to be both all-encompassing and achingly intimate. Time and time again, Westergaard's lens lingers on the faces of Reverend Mother's piercing discipline and the young women whose lives she is tasked with forming into the perfect nun. It wouldn't be difficult to compare this life to a boot camp of sorts.
While Qualley and Leo are largely front-and-center here, Novitiate is a true ensemble piece of sacred cinema with it being nearly impossible to single out any of the remaining key players above anyone else. They truly shine together.
Currently screening in New York and L.A. before its limited nationwide release, Novitiate is a remarkably intelligent and insightful film that explores both the sense of calling and the unfinished human beings who choose to enter, and sometimes exit, such a beautiful yet challenging way of life and way of serving God.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic