★★★½ - A Review by Cameron Kanachki
In the early 1960's, the Roman Catholic Church, facing a changing world landscape, instituted a series of changes through the Second Vatican Council, commonly referred to as Vatican II. These changes included the ending of speaking in Latin during Mass, the acceptance of other religions, & the ability for the priest to directly face the congregation. However, not all of the changes were positive. The main negative was the downgrading of nuns in the Catholic Church to that of the congregation, a far cry below their previous status in the Catholic Church. These issues are still very controversial in the Catholic Church to this day, 50 years after Vatican II closed.
Novitiate, while not always great, provides a good & realistic snapshot into a Vatican II-era novitiate. Set in 1964, the film follows Cathleen Harris (played by Margaret Qualley), a 17-year-old girl at a Catholic school in Tennessee. Her father, Chuck (played by Chris Zylka), left when she was 7. She has decided to become a nun, much to the chagrin of her mother, Nora (played by Julianne Nicholson), a chain-smoking agnostic.
Cathleen enters a convent where she meets fellow postulates Evelyn (played by Morgan Saylor), Sissy (played by Maddie Hasson), Emily (played by Liana Liberato), Candace (played by Eline Powell), Charlotte (played by Chelsea Lopez), & Margaret (played by Ashley Bell). The postulates are helped in their endeavors by Sister Mary Grace (played by Dianna Agron), & led by the Reverend Mother Marie St. Clair (played by Melissa Leo). The Reverend Mother is strict, cruel, & extremely devoted to God.
The Reverend Mother is alarmed by the reforms of Vatican II, wanting the ways of the Church to stay the same, unlike Archbishop McCarthy (played by Denis O'Hare), who is open to the reforms. Meanwhile, the postulates, mainly Cathleen, start to release their repressed sexual urges towards one another, which Cathleen's are amplified when Sister Emanuel (played by Rebecca Dayan) arrives as a transfer nun. The sexual urges, combined with the Reverend Mother's cruel ways & Vatican II's reforms, will change the women forever.
The cast is superb. Qualley & Nicholson are excellent. But this film definitely belongs to Melissa Leo. Leo is absolutely horrifying & disturbing as the Reverend Mother. Her character has been considered by some as a female counterpart to J.K. Simmons's Terence Fletcher in Whiplash. I agree with this comparison, as Leo is just as terrifying as Simmons.
Maggie Betts's direction is good. Although her flaws as a debut feature film director are noticable, moreso in some of the scenes involving the sexual tension, her direction is overall good, & is a formidable start to her career as a feature film director.
Maggie Betts's screenplay is excellent. The characters, who could've been caricatures (especially Melissa Leo's character, who could've easily been just a loud but unterrifying character), are fully fleshed out here.
Kat Westergaard's cinematography is excellent. The dim lighting & the cool color tone match the cold & unforgiving atmosphere of the film, its characters, & its setting.
And Susan E. Morse's editing is good. The flaws in her editing are noticeable, especially in the pacing, but she keeps the film headed in a straight & unmeandering direction.
This is an overall good film. Although the direction & editing aren't the best, the performances, especially Melissa Leo's performance, are more than enough to elevate the film past those flaws.
Novitiate was seen by me at the Landmark Main Art Theatre in Royal Oak, MI on Friday, November 24, 2017. It is in 2 theaters in the Detroit area: the Landmark Main Art Theatre in Royal Oak, MI & the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, MI. Its runtime is 123 minutes, & it is rated R for language, some sexuality & nudity.