‘Novitiate’: Film Review | Sundance 2017

Nuns overrun by emotion.

Margaret Qualley and a bevy of upcoming female actors, including Dianna Agron and Morgan Saylor, play nuns in love with God at a convent run by Melissa Leo in Maggie Betts' feature debut.

Who could ever imagine that a film about nuns struggling to come to terms with the Second Vatican Council (aka Vatican II) might be sexy? But that’s exactly what Novitiate is, as well as being stylish, impressively performed and intellectually ambitious as it explores convent life in the early 1960s, capturing a specific historical moment when the Church underwent an irrevocable theological shift.

Writer-director Maggie Betts’ feature debut is, forgive the pun, something of a revelation given her previous work — a documentary, The Carrier, about an African family dealing with AIDS and a short, Engram, that prominently featured clothes by Prabal Gurung — suggested no special interest in matters ecclesiastical. But this arresting work, starring Margaret Qualley, Julianne Nicholson and Melissa Leo as well as a celestial choir of up-and-coming young female actors, mesmerizes as it probes a uniquely female-dominated milieu where passions — both religious, sexual and a combination of the two — run hot under those starched, lily-white coifs and black habits.

The bulk of the film’s story unfolds in 1964 at a nunnery whose geographic location is left vague, all the better to reflect the women’s isolation. (A former convent in Tennessee served as the set.) An extended flashback to 10 years earlier suggests how only child Cathleen Harris ended up pursuing religion. As a young child (played first by Eliza Mason), she’s taken by her almost atheistic mother Nora (Julianne Nicholson, predictably excellent) to the local Catholic church because mom thinks she should have some idea of what religion is all about. Cathleen is impressed by the peace of the service, which certainly forms a contrast to the combustible atmosphere at home where Nora and Cathleen’s dad Chuck (Chris Zylka) often row furiously.

Five years later, the now 12-year-old Cathleen (Sasha Mason) is offered a full scholarship to the newly opened parochial Catholic school, run by nuns. There, the pretty but socially awkward Cathleen is drawn to the charismatic Sister Margaret (Ashley Bell), and one day she feels the presence of God while sitting in the school chapel, a wordless sequence beautifully performed by Mason.   

By the time she’s 17 (now played by Qualley), Cathleen thinks of herself as deeply in love, not with some pimply teenage boy — or girl — but with God himself. Much to her mother’s chagrin, she enters an order as a postulant, in other words one who hopes to become a full-fledged nun over time if not found wanting. Judging by the way the convent’s snappy, stern Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo, enjoyably over the top) warns the girls that she will effectively be God’s representative on Earth, passing muster will be no easy task.

Indeed, before long several members of the cohort who all joined at the same time are either found unworthy by the Reverend Mother or decide of their own free will that nunning isn’t their bag. Only a dozen or so get as far as their first marriage to God, a group wedding ceremony for which the women are given wedding dresses and veils. By this point, Cathleen and the viewers have become familiar with the other postulants. Some, like Sister Evelyn (Morgan Saylor), have meekly bent to family pressure to enter the Church, while others like Sister Sissy (Maddie Hasson) and Sister Emanuel (Rebecca Dayan), the latter a transfer from another order, feel a genuine calling and yearning for God. Bitchy Sister Emily (Liana Liberato), on the other hand, is basically just a mean girl with a wimple, ready to goad the others into bullying anyone who seems a little different, like Cathleen.

Although Cathleen is clearly meant to be our point of identification as she learns more about the order, Betts cuts away frequently from her to spend time with other characters, particularly likeable Sister Mary Grace (Dianna Agron), who instructs the young postulants, and the Reverend Mother as she struggles to accept the new “suggestions” (i.e. orders) from the head office that stem from Vatican II. Among many other things, such as the switch from Latin to vernacular languages for the liturgy and a more overt tolerance for other religions, the new regime seeks to end such medieval punishments and atonements as self-flagellation, crawling around on knees and other such quasi-sado-masochistic practices. The Reverend Mother, doesn’t like any of this, but she is especially incensed by the fact that Vatican II will diminish the authority of nuns everywhere. Betts' screenplay, inspired by the extensive reading of many nuns’ and former nuns’ memoirs, cannily implies that while Vatican II might seem in one way like a liberalization of Catholic doctrine, from certain angles it could be seen as a patriarchal attack on the one sphere of power women enjoyed within the Church.

Either way, by the mid-1960s, the upheaval was potent enough that, per closing titles, over 90,000 nuns left their orders for a variety of reasons. Some, like Sister Mary Grace, who bravely defies the Reverend Mother’s authority and at one point is seen tearfully masturbating alone in her cell, seemingly feel unable to conform to the strictures of the Church, especially the vows of chastity. Inevitably, sexual feelings erupt between two characters which prompt yet further questioning of their faith. Readings from the Song of Solomon and other religious writings suggest the border between religious ecstasy and sexual longing has been porous for quite some time. Some may find the heaving and excess too reminiscent of Ken Russell’s crazy 1971 campfest The Devils (like that’s a bad thing!), but others will be impressed with the restraint and respectfulness of the more erotic scenes.

Kat Westergaard’s limpid cinematography, which makes playful use of shadows and stark pools of sunlight from high windows, enhances the rapturous atmosphere. Meanwhile a finely chosen soundtrack of classical choral music by John Taverner mixed with lofty, cerebral compositions by modernists such as Arvo Part creates a rich, varied sonic texture that makes the spells of silence, or “Grand Silence,” as the Reverend Mother calls it, seem all the more stark. Nimble editing by Susan E. Morse help to create a surprisingly pacey 124-minute running time.

Production companies: Maven Pictures, Novitiate Productions

Cast: Margaret Qualley, Julianne Nicholson, Melissa Leo, Dianna Agron, Morgan Saylor, Maddie Hasson, Liana Liberto, Rebecca Dayan, Eline Powell, Chelsea Lopez, Denis O’Hare, Chris Zylka, Ashley Bell
Director-screenwriter: Maggie Betts
Producers: Carole J. Peterman, Celine Rattray, Trudie Styler
Executive producers: Jessica Betts, Roland Betts, Maggie Betts
Director of photography: Kat Westergaard
Production designer: John Sanders
Costume designer: Vanessa Porter
Editor: Susan E. Morse
Music: Christopher Stark
Music Supervisor: Tyler Bradley Walker
Casting: Sig De Miguel, Stephen Vincent
Sales: Maven Pictures

Not rated, 123 minutes