Tuesday, August 21, 2018
Written and directed by Margaret Betts, Novitiate is the story of a young woman who is training to be a nun in the early 1960s when the convent she’s living in is dealing with drastic changes during the period of the Vatican II and its effects. The film follows a woman trying to maintain her faith amidst the cruelty from her superiors who are reacting badly towards this emergence of change in the Catholic Church. Starring Margaret Qualley, Dianna Agron, Julianne Nicholson, Liana Liberto, Eline Powell, Morgan Saylor, Denis O’Hare, and Melissa Leo. Novitiate is a riveting and chilling film from Margaret Betts.
Set mainly in 1964 during the announcement of reforms from the Vatican II council, the film follows a young woman training to be a nun as she endures cruelty from her mother superior as well as temptations between body and soul. It’s a film that plays into a woman wanting to devote herself to God yet is unaware of the news about Vatican II and their desire for reforms as she and many others are kept in the dark where she has to endure all sorts of punishment to prove her devotion. Margaret Betts’ screenplay follows the life of Cathleen Harris (Margaret Qualley) who has been fascinated by spirituality ever since her mother Nora (Julianne Nicholson) took her to church just out of curiosity as Cathleen becomes interested where she attends Catholic school five years later where she would eventually decide to be a nun much to her mother’s dismay.
Much of the first act is about Cathleen’s introduction to Catholicism and the desire to be a nun where she would befriend other young women who would train under the tutelage of the kind Sister Mary Grace (Dianna Agron) whom the girls admire. The second act begins when Reverend Mother Marie Saint-Clair (Melissa Leo) gets word about the changes that the Vatican II wants to impose. For Saint-Clair, the changes is something she is unable to accept as she feels it is a threat to the way of life for the nuns though Sister Mary Grace believes the reforms could help the church reach out to more people and not be as exclusive. Yet, Saint-Clair would try to impose her old ideals upon the nuns-in-training including Cathleen who would start to struggle with her own temptations relating to the flesh just as a new novice nun in Sister Emanuel (Rebecca Dayan) has joined the convent transferring from another convent. The third act play into not just Cathleen’s temptation and belief into her sacrifice for God but also this sense of unraveling in Saint-Clair as it relates to this air of change that she has to deal with.
Betts’ direction is intoxicating for not just the way she presents this world of faith and a young woman’s infatuation with that world in the hope that can serve God the best way she can. Shot largely on location in Nashville, Tennessee where much of the film is set, the film does play into the daily life that a future nun has to endure where it begins with a prayer before morning mass and all sorts of activities that play into the training of being a nun as well as learn about the sacrifices that are made. While Betts would use some wide shots to get a scope into the convent and some of the surroundings out of the convent. Much of her direction emphasizes on close-ups and medium shots to get a look inside the rooms as well as these tense weekly meetings with Saint-Clair in which the novices have to confess their faults in front of their peers. It is one of these eerie scenes that play into Saint-Clair’s growing cruelty and unraveling as she would later question the idea of God’s abandonment towards her in a scene late in the film.
The direction also play into this struggle of body and spirit as it relates to the sacrifice Cathleen would make in the third act but also a loss of innocence as it relates to the cruelty she and other novices receive from Saint-Clair. There is this element of sexual temptation and longing to connect with others where the latter play into a meeting between Cathleen and Nora where the latter is concerned about Cathleen’s well-being as she confronts Saint-Clair. The film’s final moments don’t just play into the reality that Cathleen is about to embark on but also this sense of disconnect she was to have with the world that is ever-changing that some who were with her the first time around have left to be in that world. Overall, Betts create an evocative and haunting film about a young woman’s training to be a nun as she deals with changes in the Catholic Church and her struggle in her devotion to God.
Cinematographer Kat Westergaard does brilliant work with the film’s cinematography with its emphasis on natural lighting for many of the interiors inside the convent while aiming for a somewhat stylized look of sorts for scenes outside the convent such as Cathleen’s family home. Editor Susan E. Morse does excellent work with the editing as it does have some rhythmic touches in the drama as well as play into some of the dramatic tension that looms throughout the film. Production designer John Sanders and set decorator Gia Grosso do amazing work with the look of Cathleen’s family home for scenes early in the film as well as a few interiors inside the convent with a lot of its religious imagery.
Costume designer Vanessa Porter does fantastic work with the costumes from the stylish clothes that Nora wears to the communal dresses that the nuns-in-trainings and novices would wear for a ceremony and the nun uniforms the superiors would wear. Sound editor Ruy Garcia does superb work with the sound as it play into the atmosphere of the convent with its emphasis on silence as well as sparse noises to play into the dramatic tension and terror in scenes with Saint-Clair being mean to her students. The film’s music by Christopher Stark is terrific for its sparse yet effective piano-based score that is low-key to play into the drama as well as the sense of longing from the young novices while music supervisor Tyler Bradley Walker provides a bit of classical music including a piece by Avro Part.
The casting by Sig De Miguel and Stephen Vincent is wonderful as it feature some notable small roles from Chris Zylka as Cathleen’s father, Sasha and Eliza Mason in their respective roles as the 12 and 7 year-old Cathleen, Marco St. John as the convent priest Father Luca, and Denis O’Hare in a terrific one-scene performance as Archbishop McCarthy as a top Catholic official who talks to Saint-Clair about the changes from the Vatican II and tells her to stop with these old ideas of punishment. The performances of Morgan Saylor, Eline Powell, Liana Liberto, and Maddie Hasson are fantastic in their respective roles as Evelyn, Candace, Emily, and Sissy as nuns-in-trainings and novices who deal with the cruelty and confessions they have to reveal as well as the pressure to show their devotion to God. Rebecca Dayan is superb as Sister Emanuel as a new transfer whom the girls are suspicious about as she later becomes concerned for Cathleen’s well-being as she later gets close to Cathleen.
Julianne Nicholson is excellent as Cathleen’s mother Nora as a woman who isn’t into the idea of religion as she later becomes concerned with Cathleen’s health as she confronts Saint-Clair about what she’s doing. Dianna Argon is brilliant as Sister Mary Grace as a warm and caring nun who teaches the young novices as she is open to the ideas of the Vatican II where she starts to question Saint-Clair’s views that would later lead to trouble. Melissa Leo is amazing as Reverend Mother Marie Saint-Clair as the Mother Superior who is trying to instill her ideals of sacrifice to see if the novices are able to prove their devotion through acts of cruelty as it relates to her reaction towards the emergence of reform from the Vatican II. Finally, there’s Margaret Qualley in a phenomenal performance as Cathleen Harris as a young woman who is fascinated by faith as she decides to become a nun as she later copes with the cruelty she is getting from Saint-Clair, her struggle to be devoted to God, and her growing sexual awakening as it’s a mesmerizing performance from Qualley.
Novitiate is an incredible film from Margaret Betts that features great performances from Margaret Qualley, Julianne Nicholson, Dianna Argon, and Melissa Leo. Along with its superb ensemble cast, gorgeous visuals, and a riveting story relating to faith and conflict between body and spirit. It’s a film that explore the world of faith as well as what some will do to devote themselves to God amidst a sense of change that was emerging in the Catholic Church that threatened their ideals. In the end, Novitiate is a sensational film from Margaret Betts.
© thevoid99 2018