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‘Novitiate’ depicts women grappling with their faith in a time of transition

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The Vatican II era of the Roman Catholic Church in the 1960s was a watershed moment for the faith. It marked the transition from the archaic -- but time-honored -- traditions of the church to more accepting, liberal policies under Pope John XIII. In “Novitiate,” writer and director Margaret Betts explores how these changes impact a group of young women who decide to devote their lives to God, as well as a veteran of the faith who feels as though the church is leaving her behind.

The film makes the mistake of trying to fit too much into its 123-minute run time but redeems itself with a cast of endearing characters who -- while having the same ultimate goal -- get their faith tested in different ways. Ultimately, “Novitiate” is a fragmented combination of two films, but Betts is able to piece it together in a manner that retains some grace.

The viewer is introduced to Cathleen Harris (Margaret Qualley) and her mother Nora (Julianne Nicholson) as they attend Cathleen’s first Catholic mass. It is made clear from the start that Nora has a negative opinion of the church, but wants her daughter to experience it for herself. Cathleen latches on to the faith immediately, and discusses this fact with her mother back at their home. Her mother is still very leery about the church, but appreciates that it caught her daughter’s interest.

The film’s first major conflict is introduced in the first ten minutes when Cathleen’s father comes home -- apparently after several days of being away -- and proceeds to get into an argument with her mother that escalates to cartoonish proportions within a matter of seconds. The director may have meant to imply that this fight was a result of tensions that already existed between the two. However, the lack of any sufficient context or character development at this early point paired with the cliched dialogue of the fight created a laborious experience for the viewer, despite it lasting less than 30 seconds.

While this scene was easily the most awkward in the entire film, it set up an important theme throughout: Cathleen’s desire for comfort, or “something more” to give her life more meaning.

The void left by her detachment from her mother and her estranged father is filled with God, and she eventually joins a convent as a postulant, overseen by the zealotous -- and extremely old-fashioned -- Reverend Mother Marie Saint-Claire (Melissa Leo). The Reverend Mother leads Cathleen and her fellow postulants down a rigorous path of self-penance, which includes numerous forms of severe physical and emotional abuse.

Parallels could even be drawn between the second act of “Novitiate” and the Marine Corps boot camp in Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” with the intensity of the training. While Kubrick’s Gunnery Sergeant Hartman broke his recruits down physically, creating the perfect soldiers, Betts’ Reverend Mother broke her postulants down mentally and emotionally, creating God’s perfect wives.

While these punishments were outwardly cruel, Reverend Mother grappled with her own internal struggle. Her patience with the rapid-changing Catholic Church begins to wear thin, feeling as though the institution -- as well as God himself, whom she devoted her entire life to -- was beginning to turn its back on her.

This was the most engaging arc of the entire film, as it showed the severe insecurities within the Reverend Mother. She hid things from her sisters, as well as deliberately lied to them to protect the version of the church that she saw as pure. In her own words, “I happen to think the church is perfect the way it is.” Her refusal to accept the reforms enacted by the Vatican II leads to an ultimatum brought to her by Archbishop McCarthy (Denis O’Hare).

Cathleen is seen throughout the film, but her arc is muddled as the film tries to tackle a concept much bigger than a coming-of-age story for a young nun. She regularly struggles with the idea of “comfort,” attempting to fill a void in her heart left by her parents with religion. Her approach to faith takes on a zealous form to rival that of the Reverend Mother herself, exhibiting almost sexual pleasure from her prayers as well as volunteering for self-flagellation and starving herself as a form of penance.

This is presented as a sort of journey to get closer to God, but at the very end of the film is completely turned on its head and becomes a question of sexual intimacy -- which is obviously forbidden for women of the cloth. This subplot, which was only vaguely hinted at during a few brief moments throughout the film, introduced the question of sexuality far too late, and took away from the film instead of adding to it.

Despite its narrative shortcomings, Betts is able to strike a balance between the film’s competing subplots, creating an overarching theme of the internal struggle of faith for these women as they adapt to unprecedented changes in religious doctrine that completely alters how women will practice faith in the church. While taking in the 1960s, the choice of setting and subject matter created a sort of timelessness for the film. It is very fragmented, but maintains enough structural integrity to ensure the viewer walks away with something.

Grade: C+

Novitiate was released November 3

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