Review: NOVITIATE (2017) 'Melissa Leo, Julianne Nicholson, and Margaret Qualley deliver powerful performances'


Joseph Friar

By Joseph Friar
Nov. 9, 2017 at 12:43 p.m.

Review: NOVITIATE (2017)
Margaret Qualley, Melissa Leo, Julianne Nicholson, Dianna Agron, Rebecca Dayan, Morgan Saylor, Liana Liberato, Maddie Hasson, Ashley Bell, Eline Powell, Denis O'Hare, Chris Zylka
Directed by Maggie Betts

For nearly 100 years the Catholic Church operated under the guidelines of the First Vatican Council of 1870. Then in the early 60’s Pope John XXIII created Vatican II in an effort to modernize the church. Over 2000 bishops convened in Rome where they decided on reconciliation. Sweeping changes were made and Catholic doctrine was relaxed. Writer-director Maggie Betts examines this period by focusing on a cloistered order of nuns in a Tennessee convent led by the stern Reverend Mother played by the Oscar-worthy Melissa Leo. Equally impressive are the performances by Margaret Qualley as a teenage postulant entering the convent and Julianne Nicholson as her mother who is heartbroken by her daughter’s decision to become a nun.

Betts, making her feature film debut, introduces the audience to Cathleen as a child and we observe how she became interested in becoming a nun especially since she wasn’t Catholic. The contributing factors included an unstable home which led to her parents’ divorce and a trip to the local church after her mother Nora (Julianne Nicholson) decided it couldn’t hurt. The seed was planted, and Cathleen began to feel the calling while attending Catholic school although she kept it a secret from her mother.

Fast forward to 1964 where we find now 17-year old Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) entering the convent to join the Sisters of the Sacred Rose as a postulant, a candidate interested in becoming a nun. Think of it as a probationary period preceding the actually training to become a nun called Novitiate. Qualley who’s known for her work on the television series “The Leftovers” brings the perfect amount of bright-eyed innocence to the role. Unlike some of the other postulants, Cathleen has never kissed a boy and when she begins to have feelings for another one of the sisters she begins to question her devotion. Betts centers the film around Cathleen as she struggles to become a “bride of Jesus Christ” using self-discipline such as flagellating herself with a whip to remain focused, a measure struck down by Vatican II.

“Novitiate” takes place right before the rulings of the Second Vatican Council which Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo) is aware of. A letter from Archbishop McCarthy (great cameo by Denis O'Hare) regarding the upcoming reforms is neglected by Reverend Mother who decides to keep the changes hidden from the other nuns. She runs the convent the way Nurse Ratched ran the psych ward in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Leo is terrific in the role of the old-fashioned Mother Superior who doesn’t feel the church is broken. She believes in corporal punishment, periods of strict silence, and no touching. You’ve got to understand, with Vatican II everything Reverend Mother has ever known was about to change leaving the audience to feel empathy for Leo’s character who feels abandoned by God.

As good as Leo and Qualley are in the film, its actress Julianne Nicholson who steals the show with a powerhouse performance as Cathleen’s overbearing yet concerned mother Nora. One of the film’s finest moments comes when she storms into Reverend Mother’s office demanding to know what they are doing to her daughter after she notices a significant weight loss while visiting Cathleen. As Nicholson unleashes her anger on Leo the look on the Reverend Mother’s face will be matched by most of the audience. The trifecta of Leo, Nicholson, and Qualley makes “Novitiate” a must see.

Over 90,000 nuns left the church after the rulings of Vatican II. Many felt they had lost a special place in the church after being demoted to the same level as a parishioner. They were no longer required to wear habits or cover their hair. For the first-time priests faced the congregation and recited mass in the native tongue instead of Latin and Catholics were encouraged to accept other religions. These changes left sisters like Reverend Mother feeling abandoned while more of the liberal-minded nuns embraced the changes that freed them to go out into the world and do God’s work.

(4 stars)

Opens Friday, November 10 at the River Oaks Theater (Houston)



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