Novitiate

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 Novitiate

First time feature writer/director Margaret Betts sets her examination of the Catholic faith, through the eyes of 17-year old postulant Cathleen, at the time when the Church was undergoing the radical changes of the Second Vatican Council (AKA Vatican II). Cathleen and the rest of the postulants arrive at the convent on the cusp of this revolutionary papal declaration.

Robin:
The Reverend Mother has spent her last 40 years dedicated to the Catholic Church and all that it stands for – before Vatican II struck it all down. Suddenly, everything she knows and knew – mandatory silence (the Grand Silence), self-punishment like flagellation, total devotion to Christ in dress and manner – are a thing of the past and she, Marie St. Claire, must submit to the new church order.

She keeps her conflict over Vatican II to herself, refusing, even, to discuss it with her assistant, Sister Mary Grace (Dianna Agron), or let it be known to the young women under her charge. This brings us to the other half of the “Novitiate” story – the young women of the Blessed Sorrows preparing to devote their life to God.

Cathleen and the others are not just relinquishing control of their lives to the rules of the Reverend Mother; they are also undergoing physical and emotional changes. These changes and conflicts of faith are the pot-boiling soap opera part of their story as the make new discoveries – of themselves and those close to them – in their bodies and their beliefs.

For me, the most interesting thing about “Novitiate“ is the impact the new papal creed has on the Reverend Mother as it shakes her faith in the traditions of the Church. Melissa Leo is dynamic as the ruler of her realm but subservient to the dictates of her (male) superiors. Her relationship, almost adversarial, with Sister Mary over Vatican II is one of wishing to ignore the inevitable, the other willing to embrace it. They are two sides of the same coin – one steeped in the past, the other seeing the future of the change for the Church.

“Novitiate” shows the Church that I grew up with all its rituals and rules and the radical changes that were made with Vatican II - as a former Catholic, the big change for me as a kid was that the mass was in English instead of Latin. I could finally understand what the priest was talking about. I give it a B-.

Laura:
In 1954 in rural Tennessee, non believer Nora Harris (Julianne Nicholson, "Black Mass"), looking for something to do in her husband's absence, brought her daughter to a Catholic Mass.  Cathleen loved the experience, finding it peaceful. After her father had left for good, two Catholic nuns approached the mother and young girl with a scholarship offer to their school.  Cathleen fell in love with their world, distressing Nora with her decision to enter the convent of the Order of the Sisters of Blessed Rose in "Novitiate."

Writer/director Maggie Betts' feature directorial debut is meant to illustrate how Vatican II reforms completely changed nunhood in the Catholic Church by following one young woman's journey at the height of the controversy (one third left their vocations over a decade), but her tone flirts with the hysteria of Ken Russell's "The Devils," giving her film a camp quality she surely never intended.  From the Draconian methods of Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo, "The Fighter"), the cliched 'evil' nun descending into madness, to the sexual yearnings of its protagonist, "Novitiate" casts its convent as some kind of twisted cult.  It is difficult to take much of it seriously.

From the moment of Reverend Mother Marie St. Claire's introduction, we know we're in for lunacy as she informs her fresh batch of postulates that she is the voice of God.  The woman hasn't set foot outside the convent's gates for forty years and nothing about her is charitable or compassionate. Sister Mary Grace (Dianna Agron, TV's 'Glee') outlines their schedule, regulated by bells beginning with a 5 a.m. wakeup and including 'regular' and 'grand' silence.  The girls are informed they won't talk about novitiate until they are one, as if invoking the first rule of "Fight Club."

There is a lot of attrition, one girl after the next crumbling as she fails to find her relationship with her future husband, Jesus Christ, or is humiliated by Reverend Mother for some infraction. The postulates are told 'We don't think of others.  We only thing of God!' Reverend Mother, meanwhile, is defying the Pope by refusing to adopt Vatican II.  Her refusal to even share its contents leads to a blow up with Mary Grace, the kind, open-minded nun leaving the convent after daring to question her judgement.  Nora is alarmed on a visit, noting Cathleen's (Margaret Qualley, "The Nice Guys") significant weight loss, threatening her removal.

Those who've made it this far, including Cathleen, progress to the bridal ceremony that advances them to novitiates, their simple black wimples replaced with more elaborate white ones. They are introduced to 'Mother's' Chapter of Faults, a perverse group confessional where accusations are encouraged.  Cathleen is interrogated when she requests 'The Discipline,' the cat o' nine tails used for self flagellation (and a clear violation of Vatican II), Reverend Mother not satisfied with her explanation of her sins.  Cathleen feels guilt for seeking comfort with Sister Emanuel (Rebecca Dayan, "Celeste & Jesse Forever"), although she will not name her.

Finally forced to adopt reforms after a threatening visit from Archbishop McCarthy (Denis O'Hare, 'True Blood's' Vampire King), the Reverend Mother breaks down as she informs her convent they may now dress as they like, that the Mass is no longer restricted to Latin, that all religions are to be respected and that nuns are no longer to be spiritually elevated above the populace.

There is never enough groundwork laid to explain why Cathleen would embrace such abuse, despite her broken home and mother's loose lifestyle.  Ironically, it is Julianne Nicholson who shines brightest here, her pitched battle with Leo the film's best scene.  Leo's Reverend Mother is a gargoyle, eliciting no sympathy for Reverend Mother's deranged sacrifices.  "Novitiate" is unduly prurient and sadistic, an exploitation movie shrouded in art house sheen.  If this is what mid 20th century convent life was really like, the Catholic Church endorsed sadomasochism over the teachings of Jesus Christ.
    
Grade:  C
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