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Review: Novitiate (2017)

Novitiate (2017)

Directed by: Maggie Betts

Premise: A group of novitiate nuns enter the convent at the time of Vatican II. Their spiritual yearnings come into conflict with their physical desires and the convent staff struggles to adapt to a changing church.

What Works: Within the genre of religious movies there is a subset of films that deal with the struggles between spiritual ideals and material realities. Titles such as The Last Temptation of Christ and The Passion of Joan of Arc tell stories of characters who undertake a spiritual mission and are burdened by the temptations and restrictions of the physical world. These are a small niche of films but when they are done well these stories offer a valuable and challenging examination of spiritual struggle. Novitiate ranks with the best of these kinds of religious films. It is a portrait of women dedicating themselves to a life of spirituality and then seeing their commitment threatened by aspects of the physical world. The film is primarily the story of Cathleen, played by Margaret Qualley, a young woman raised by a single mother who is atheistic and antagonistic toward religion. The filmmakers dedicate a good portion of the story to Cathleen’s background so that it informs our understanding of who she is and the origins of her religious dedication. Qualley is very good in the role. Cathleen is a diligent student and she commits to the life inside of the convent, trying to will herself into a state of spiritual enlightenment. However, life inside of the convent is rocked by a series of disruptions. The revolutionary decrees of The Second Vatican Council are embraced by a progressive instructor played by Dianna Agron but resisted by the convent’s Reverend Mother played by Melissa Leo. Agron and Leo are terrific in Novitiate and their characters cope with the creeping influence of modernity in ways that reveal generational and philosophical differences. Melissa Leo’s character does not handle the reforms well at all but rather than portraying her as a mean spirited stick-in-the-mud, the filmmakers allow the Reverend Mother some depth. This is a woman who has dedicated her entire life to the Church and the reforms of Vatican II threaten to take that away from her. The various personal struggles on display in Novitiate—the tension between tradition versus modernity and the spiritual versus the carnal—offer a vivid and provocative portrait of religious life than is relevant to the contemporary audience. 

What Doesn’t: Novitiate is not likely to appeal to the audience that turned movies like God’s Not Dead into box office hits. This film does not affirm the fuzzy notions of religion and spirituality that the faith-based movie industry generally reinforces. Novitiate is a challenging film, one that interrogates how the combination of spiritual and material desires shape us and specifically how physical manipulation like punishment and deprivation impact our psychological state and open or close us to transcendental experiences. While the movie is ambiguous in many respects, viewers can probably discern a particular point of view on the modernization of the Catholic Church’s traditions and ideology. Like many movies, and especially many religious films, how viewers feel about Novitiate will largely be shaped by the point of view they bring to it.

DVD extras: Commentary track, deleted scenes, alternate ending, interviews.

Bottom Line: Novitiate is a challenging film about faith and spirituality. It doesn’t pander to the faith based crowd and so its appeal might be limited but the film is a powerful exploration of spiritual and earthly cravings that features some exceptional performances.

Episode: #691 (March 25, 2018)