In Novitiate, a young Catholic school transplant Grace enters the sisterhood amidst the unspoken coming changes of Vatican II, a church ruling that would reduce the distance between clergy and follower. Directed by Margaret Betts, the journey that follows finds the shattering of traditions to be matched in the degradation of the spirits of its young inductee nuns. The film is led by Melissa Leo as the punishing and unyielding Mother Superior, but features a stunning cast led by Margaret Qualley as Grace and Julianne Nicholson as her wary, unreligious mother.
Novitiate is somewhat fitful, it’s quality vacillating at breakneck speeds between scenes. When one on-the-nose scene about religious calling or tradition ends, it likely gives way to an entrancing one of intricately drawn female relationships or plumb the depths of institutionalized psychological abuse. The tone is rarely controlled on the whole but individual scenes burn, particularly when the ensemble is given room to fluidly feel their way through the moment. It’s enough to make you quite excited to see what comes next from Betts.
The director proves to be an intuitive visual stylist, finding great variety and context despite the sameness within Novitiate’s stone walls and the modesty of the traditional nun garb. That aforementioned breathing room with the ensemble still shows great control and shaping from Betts, certainly one of the more impressive recent directorial debuts for how she guides her actors. It’s rigorous work, deep and full-bodied even when it occasionally missteps.
There is surprisingly little Christian religious insight in the film and that is partly the point. The nuns are so limited by ancient practice and an upheaval chosen for them that spirituality becomes like an unattainable luxury. They become so indoctrinated, how are they even able to hear the God to which they pray without first being instructed how? In procedure and punishment, there is no room for relationship of the soul or of the flesh. While such ideas may seem obvious or polemical, Novitiate is always reaching for the unexamined and the human.
While there is reverence for its specific institutional crisis Novitiate depicts within the Catholic church, the film is most effective as a parable of systems that abuse and subjugate women. Even if Leo’s Reverend Mother is performed atonally to the film’s layers, there is meaningful tragedy in how the film shows her allegiance is used against her. The film is rather gracious in its refusal to simplify her, and thus the identity shift of the church itself. The cruelty she inflicts is felt within her as well because she remains a pawn to the larger system.
Novitiate’s soul is bruised, but unbroken – a charged piece of compassionate debut filmmaking.