Perhaps the quietest movie of the year, Maggie Betts’ “Novitiate” is a fascinating, unblinking yet respectful look at a time and place: the still, echoing hallways and rooms of a 1964 convent. 3 out of 4 stars.
Perhaps the quietest movie of the year, Maggie Betts’ “Novitiate” mostly takes place in the still, echoing hallways and rooms of a 1964 convent; its noise comes from its characters’ querying souls.
Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) is a young woman from rural Tennessee who enters the convent as a teenage novice, seeking “to be able to spend my entire life devoted to love.” Raised by a single mother (Julianne Nicholson) in a nonreligious household, she’s drawn to the security of what is described to her as God’s unconditional love.
Movie Review ★★★
‘Novitiate,’ with Margaret Qualley, Melissa Leo, Julianne Nicholson, Dianna Agron, Morgan Saylor, Liana Liberato, Rebecca Dayan, Denis O’Hare. Written and directed by Maggie Betts. 123 minutes. Rated R for language, some sexuality and nudity. Seattle 10 (21+).
But Cathleen has chosen a complicated time to become a nun. The reforms ushered in by Vatican II are changing what it means to live a religious life, and the convent’s stern Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo) — a woman whose convictions make bedrock seem flimsy — struggles to comply. Reading aloud a list of imposed changes to her community, her voice is a masterpiece of strain, pulled so tight it’s almost airless. She ends with a defeated murmur: “Have a pleasant day.”
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Betts, a documentarian making her narrative feature debut, immerses us in the quiet: those spotless, spare hallways; the statues in the courtyard; the whispering veils in a procession of women. If Qualley’s Cathleen comes off as something of a blank slate, that seems quite intentional: this very young woman has arrived at the convent unformed, a child ready to be shaped. It is, she quickly learns, a painful process; not quite the ecstatic communion for which she hoped.
“Novitiate” is a fascinating, unblinking yet respectful look at a time and place — a women’s community where a visiting archbishop (Denis O’Hare) can act like he owns the place. And in Leo, it presents a remarkable portrait of a complex woman struggling with forces beyond her control. Drawn to the discipline and clarity of a prescribed life of obedience and sacrifice mingled with power, she digs in her heels, hard, against any alteration. Leo shows us, on rare occasion, the Reverend Mother’s fond smile as she looks at the young nuns; more often, her mouth becomes an unflinching line. Her world made sense; suddenly, it doesn’t anymore.