Growing up in the midwest, you were either Baptist, Pentecostal or Catholic. I grew up practicing two of the three. As a devout Catholic, we were told to revere and respect the Nuns and the Priests, as they were to have “Jesus On The Main Line” type of capability.
Little did my 12 year-old self know that the church had gone through major changes in the way these saints were trained. When Pope John XXIII announced the creation of Vatican II in January 1959, it shocked the world. There hadn’t been an assembly of Roman Catholic religious leaders meant to settle doctrinal issues — in nearly 100 years.
What does all that mean? Basically, that Nuns and Priests had to abolish the archaic manner in which they were trained and disciplined. They no longer had to wear habits or dress in black. They could even have relationships. Some welcomed the change and others were appalled at the gall of this new Pope.
In Novitiate, a 17 year-old girl (Margaret Qualley) Sister Cathleen has decided to give her life over to the church much to the chagrin of her mother Nora Harris (Julianne Nicholson). Amid the strict and apprehensive training of Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo), who is having a little struggle of her own with the impending changes in the church.
Having won the Breakthrough Director award at the Sundance Film Festival this year, Margaret Betts’ reputation is garnering Oscar buzz with her feature film debut. Not being a particularly religious person and absolutely no relationship with Catholicism, at a recent Q&A, Betts admitted that she got the idea for Novitiate by reading Mother Teresa’s book – Come Be My Light. The idea that Mother Teresa’s first love relationship mirrored Sister Cathleen’s love for God was fascinating. She wanted Novitiate to feel like God was Sister Cathleen’s boyfriend and explore what that is like to be in love with a someone you can see, hear or feel.
Impressed would be a mild understatement. Margaret Betts assembled the best cast and crew she would muster up. All women!!! Which brings me to my next point. I adore the fact that when certain sex scenes were shot, that they were shot from the character’s pain of view instead of being overly graphic. It leaves so much to the imagination and made the scenes much more interesting to watch.
The ensemble of actresses are all fantastic, but the standouts for me were Morgan Saylor (Sister Evelyn), Rebecca Dayan (Sister Emmanuel), Eline Powell (Sister Candace) and of course, Margaret Qualley as Sister Cathleen. Qualley’s understated approach makes Sister Cathleen so compelling and complex that you have an enormous sense of empathy for her while she struggles to find her identity as a young woman in love.
However, it is the performance of Melissa Leo as Reverend Mother that makes your hair stand up on your neck. She’s kinda like the Nurse Ratched of Nuns!! Her temper tantrum outbursts with no warning remind you that this is a woman in her fifties who is feeling betrayed by the church. A women who in a weird sense feels like she is going through the failure of a divorce with someone she has devoted more than forty years of her life. Leo vividly makes the audience understand that this woman has the mental capacity of an emotionally underdeveloped 16-year-old in the way she thinks, behaves and handles confrontation. In a word – brilliant!!!
It goes without saying that Julianne Nicholson can take any small role and make it feel as though it is mountainous. Her portrayal of Nora is no different. Nicholson makes you empathize with this woman who is a single mother trying to figure out where she went wrong. I mean, why was her teenage daughter more interested in the church than boys, dating, etc…
What this film may do is make you think about your own spirituality and if you are truly living the live the universe has planned for you. Produced by Sony Pictures Classics, Novitiate opens on October 27th at a theatre near you!