By Mark Saldana

Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

The Catholic Church has existed for many centuries and is, thus, one of the oldest religions in existence.  During its extensive history, the Church has had its share of dark chapters and notable moments that its leaders would prefer to forget.  Between 1962 and 1965, Pope John XXIII headed the Second Vatican Council which was formed to address the diminishing interest in their faith and discuss the ways the Catholic Church could adjust to the needs of the modern world.  The Council decided to enact many drastic changes including changes to the rituals in services and also to the more controversial practices of its clergy.  The practices and ritual of nuns, in particular, and the grueling training and questionable rituals they underwent to take on the vocation went through some drastic changes.  Novitiate, a  fascinating, but disturbing film by writer/director Margaret Betts offers a portrait of a particularly strict order of Catholic sisterhood whose harsh and abusive rituals ceased with Vatican II, but not before the order would have its cruel impact on many young women.

Margaret Qualley stars as Cathleen Harris, the protagonist of the story and an apprentice nun participating in the education and rituals of sisterhood.  As a child, Cathleen was raised by her hard working, but agnostic single mother Nora (Julianne Nicholson).  Feeling that her daughter deserves the right to decide whether or not to practice a religion, Nora takes Cathleen to a Catholic mass when she is seven.  Captivated by elegant reverence of the rituals and intrigued with the beliefs in God and Jesus, Cathleen decides to become Catholic and asks her mother to enroll her in the church’s school.  After years of attendance, seventeen year-old Cathleen decides to become a nun.  At first, Cathleen adjusts well to the strict routines and demands at the postulant level of training.  Once Cathleen graduates to the novitiate level; however, the training, sacrifices, and punishments become even more rigid, severe, and abusive.  Under the draconian discipline of Reverend Mother St. Clair (Melissa Leo), Cathleen begins to seriously question her faith and the existence of a God who would allow the sisters to suffer as they do.

With Novitiate, writer/director Margaret Betts offers a haunting and enthralling examination of hypocrisy within the Catholic Church.  Betts makes an unflinching commentary on how the strict dogma of Church’s practices impacted the women who initially fell in love with the institution and only wanted to serve God and the people of the world.  Betts’s film gives audiences a powerful intimate portrait of lost young woman who seeks solace and love within the church, but mostly finds abuse and pain.  Though the movie does have its amazing moments, it also suffers from some theatrical melodrama at times.  Still, Betts offers an intelligent and scathing critique of the evils religious institutions are capable of committing.  Though the film is a period piece, its messages still resonate with modern women today, who still have to deal with abuse and inequality in a male dominated society.

The cast assembled for the film is quite impressive, particularly the several young actresses portraying the apprentice nuns.  Some of the standouts include Diana Agron, Liana Liberato, Morgan Saylor, Maddie Hasson, Ashley Bell, and Rebecca Dayan.  Melissa Leo delivers an extraordinary performance as Reverend Mother St. Clair, but my gripe concerning the couple of melodramatic moments in the film involve her character.  Nevertheless, in the more frightening and disturbing scenes, Leo performs phenomenally.  As the protagonist Cathleen, the lovely Margot Smalley delivers a powerful and stunning turn.  It is an outstanding realization by a talented young actress.

And I certainly hope Smalley’s work here leads to more lead roles in movies or television.  I also was quite impressed with the writing and direction of Margaret Betts.  Hers in another fine voice for women in cinema and she definitely deserves much recognition and more work after this great film.  I am sure the Catholic Church is probably cringing with the indictments made by Betts’s movie, but before genuine and sincere changes can be made, the sins of the past most always be recognized and acknowledged for the education and enlightenment of current and future generations.


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