Set in the early 1960s and during the era of Vatican II, a young woman in training to become a nun struggles with issues of faith, the changing church and sexuality.
Director: Margaret Betts
Writer: Margaret Betts
Stars: Liana Liberato, Dianna Agron, Margaret Qualley
Margaret Betts’ “Novitiate” is strikingly ambitious, even when it can be as formal as a church service. In her directorial debut, she has sought to make a movie that presents an honest, deliberately-paced and non-judgmental idea of a sister’s journey to become a nun during the 1960s. The story takes place before Vatican II decided that nuns were not as special as priests, and that their traditions of solemnity have been pointless. As it follows the religious journey of Sister Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), it plays to every beat with supportive, sunny music as she decides that she wants to become religious despite not being raised that way, and then elects to give herself to God. There are many moments where the first half of the movie feels like “Nun: Origins,” replete with “Full Metal Jacket”-level detail into the training process, and it becomes uncertain as to which angle Betts has with the story, unless it’s for audiences who believe just like Sister Cathleen.
Betts acclimates us with the different young women who share Cathleen’s passion, and we accept that they all want to make such a sacrifice. A fascinating angle of Betts’ take on nuns is by highlighting it as a love story, but about a woman’s relationship with God. The women often say “I love you, God,” and even refer to him as their husband. It’s also a vivid depiction as to why these women would voluntarily sign themselves up for a life that cuts them away from the world, while also repressing many actions.
As a movie that wants be as formal as possible until it starts to get some edge halfway, it is given that energy from its excellent cast of women (featuring Dianna Agron, Liana Liberato, Maddie Hasson, Morgan Saylor, Eline Powell and more). They are able to maintain the human side of these characters. Betts’ script as well becomes more interesting when it becomes less about the formalities and the women themselves, who have their curiosities about the sexuality they repress, along with the rules they follow.
Of all people in the cast, no one is more explosive than Melissa Leo, who is given carte blanche as the head Reverend Mother, acting upon her own repressions and powerlessness against the young women of the convent. Leo brings an intensity that also opens the movie up a bit, particularly in a scene where she forces the women to share what their deepest, darkest flaws are. It’s her performance, along with this movie’s interest in exploring religion as a loving relationship, that make this movie more vivid than it might initially seem.
– Nick Allen, RogerEbert.com