Movie Review

Novitiate (2017) by Maggie Betts

Original Name: Novitiate

Director: Maggie Betts

Runtime: 123 minutes

Language: English

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Maggie Betts: an American filmmaker and screenwriter. In 2010 Maggie made the award winning documentary THE CARRIER. Through her work on THE CARRIER, Maggie remains involved with numerous charities relating to the plight of HIV/AIDS in Africa. She is also a strong supporter of women’s rights everywhere and the continued advancement of gender equality.  

 ““[] I picked up a biography of Mother Theresa, which I thought was going to be this generic overview. It ended up being a compilation of all these letters that she’d written during the course of her life. And they were to family, friends and intimate people in her life. And they were so obsessively consumed with her relationship with God and her love. I was mesmerized that her life was filled with the same sort of relationship dramas like mine and other women’s.

Set in the backdrop of Vatican II, where during 3 years the Pope released dozen documents in order to innovate the Church’s roles, the story takes place in the far side of America where the nuns (which is called the Sisters of Beloved Rose) at the last period of the conservative and extreme devotion to God, Novitiate is at heart an exploration to the romantic love with Jesus Christ, their lifelong sacrifice in the name of that love and draw a proper picture of the girls’ condition as they learn to become real nuns. Although a bit overlong and as subtle as a brick through the window, the film succeed on drawing a fascinating picture regarding why young girls would devote their whole life exclusively to God, and that love is not only from admiration, but a romantic one (they see themselves as God’s brides). While it’s an intriguing idea, Novitiate sometimes can be a tad bit obvious and loud, for example how the film handles Cathleen’s (Margaret Qualley) family situation. Secondly, for a film where Grand Silence becomes an important part of their lives, there’s too much shouting, laying bare the “truth” which for me doesn’t add up much to their central idea of love and sacrifice. Novitiate has many intriguing ideas, but it loses the impact while it tries to addresses too many themes, resulting in an ending that rather inconclusive and many plot threads that don’t reach full potential.

Novitiate is at its best when it explores the love regarding these young girls to God, the sacrifice they prepare themselves to and ultimately, the belief that love is ultimately a sacrifice. These lines of ideas are conveyed through the characters Cathleen and Reverent Mother Marie (played by Melissa Leo), respectively. Cathleen character explores that “love” theme. She doesn’t have a devoted Christian background, but she finds a special relationship with Jesus that she decides to become a nun, despite her mother dismays. For her and many girls that young age, the idea of an ultimate love, the love where she can devote her whole life into, is something beautiful and pure. But as a case where someone gives so much without having anything concrete but faith in return, she seeks for something more, something “physical” both in the existence of God, and in physical intimate and comfort.

Melissa Leo’s character, on the other spectrum, represents the figure who sacrifices her whole life devoted to strict life and be a worthy servant of God, just so that the very belief is shaken with the intervention of Vatican II. What if for everything she done in service of God, He turns his eyes away from her? Ultimately, it’s the sisters’ belief of love is sacrifice (that line is spoken vocally in one sequence), that through their own physical sacrifice in the name of Christ: be it live the rest of their lives in reclusive area and cut off from the whole world; or Cathleen’s refusal to eat that they believe they form a special connection to Him. The film, quite appropriately, refuses to give their stand on the issue, as it provides the idea through both side of the arguments: the sisters and ordinary people through the eyes of Cathleen’s mother.

At other times, Novitiate stumbles when it tries to show other girls’ perspective, especially those who later question their faith in God or what they originally believe in. While it’s an interesting topic on to itself, put it into this story make Novitiate loses its focus and lessens the impact of the main storyline. Likewise, the final statement about the change in Vatican II has so little to do with the main development of Cathleen that it feels more like a misstep. The performances, however, are pretty solid all around. Melissa Leo deserves special mention as she embraces herself in such difficult role and her character hits all the right note as being scary, ruthless but at times vulnerable. Margaret (the daughter of Andie MacDowell) holds her screen well and Julianne Nicholson plays her role emotionally as Cathleen’s mother who sees her daughter getting farther away from her. With women-exclusive settings, and the production team consist of mainly women (the editor and cinematographer for instance), Novitiate has some neat ideas behind the lives of nuns that usually unrealistically saturated in Hollywood (prime example is Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story), but its heavy-handed approach, along with its trying to handle too many different themes, make it a well-acted but bumpy ride.

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