Writer and director Margaret Betts’ (“The Carrier,” “Any Given Sunday”) new film, “Novitiate,” strays far from the obedience and purity its name suggests, revealing the human flaws that mark even the most spiritually inclined.
Delving into the dark underbelly of the Catholic Church during the 1960s, “Novitiate” takes audiences on an intimate journey into the lives of several young women within the novitiate, a period of time during which they discern whether or not they’re capable of dedicating their lives to God. The film focuses on Cathleen Harrison (Margaret Qualley), detailing her tumultuous transition into religious life.
Betts ushers in the film’s emotional poignancy through her introduction of Cathleen’s character. When Cathleen is around the age of 9, her father abandons her and her mother, Nora (Julianne Nicholson), leaving psychological damage in his wake. Upon witnessing her father’s betrayal, Cathleen decides to seek a deeper, selfless kind of love — one she feels she’ll find through religious life.
As a teenager, Cathleen confronts her mother to discuss her call to the religious life and discovers that Nora is appalled by her decision. Cathleen’s troublesome relationship with her mother is a human dynamic not often depicted onscreen, and its heaviness and realism is amplified as the film progresses. Nicholson captures Nora’s vulnerability and instability, carefully treading a fine line between her character’s callousness and desire to care for her daughter.
Once 17-year-old Cathleen arrives at the convent to prepare for her vows, she meets other aspiring nuns who provide the perfect balance between religious zeal and childish fascination. While some seem to be stuck in an ethereal daydream, others appear shaken by the regimented future that awaits them. Soon after arriving at the convent, the girls become subjected to the cruel and unrelenting Reverend Mother, perfectly portrayed by Melissa Leo (“The Fighter,” “Snowden”), who rules through fear and ruthless intimidation. Leo fully embraces this role, conveying her character’s struggle to accept the shocking new rules set in place by the Second Vatican Council. The Council, arranged by Pope John XXIII, strikes a nerve with Reverend Mother, mostly due to the independence it granted nuns, such as the dismissal of the traditional habit.
Qualley presents her role as Cathleen with profound sincerity, realistically conveying her character’s extreme psychological and emotional turmoil. Through her often intense, and sometimes humorous interactions with the other novices, Cathleen’s character adds a human dimension to the prospect of religious life. She and her fellow novices discuss their resignations and fears about entering the convent in remarkably honest ways, adding a tone of sincerity to the film’s austere story line.
The film clearly captures the novices’ guilt and frustration, which result from the brutal confessionals they are forced to undergo with Reverend Mother. Some of these scenes tremor with so much fear and anguish that it’s difficult to imagine anyone willfully considering religious life at this time. Yet, as Betts demonstrates magnificently throughout her film, many young women felt truly called to this life, compelled by an inscrutable aura that is felt within every scene. However, Betts offers more than just a glimpse of Catholicism’s dark, controversial past, delivering a compelling, robust discourse on human passion and the motives that lead people to steer their lives in dramatic directions.
The film’s cinematography echoes the drama that drives its characters, which is most evident in the scenes filmed within the convent’s chapel. Cinematographer Kat Westergaard captures the density and darkness of the chapel scenes, lending the space both reverence and a solemn ambience that’s offset by the presence of the nuns in their black-and-white habits. Westergaard lends life to the space itself, which adds to the film’s emotional resonance.
As both a conversation about the Catholic Church’s darker days and an examination of human psychology, “Novitiate” succeeds in realistically highlighting the struggles people face when they’re confronted with difficult, life-changing decisions. The film depicts the shockingly violent punishments, which were often inflicted on young women entering the religious life; and it shows the deep camaraderie that blossomed among the religious hopefuls. Betts offers a unique look at the power of female relationships, adding an appropriately feminist air to her religiously driven masterpiece.
Betts’ “Novitiate” is thought provoking, intimate and surreal, capturing the inexplicable heart of religiosity and the deep, emotional complexities that bind people together.
“Novitiate” is currently playing at Landmark Century Centre Cinema (2828 N. Clark St.) and Century 12 Evanston (1715 Maple Ave.) and is expected to run for at least four weeks.