I have never been in a convent. I am not a nun. I am not even a fallen choir boy, but I have only admiration for the women who have the strength to endure all it takes to become a full-fledged nun. Let me tell you that it takes a steel constitution to go through the rigorous curriculum that is required to endure the pain and heartache required by the Catholic Church and the Pope’s orders from Rome. With Novitiate, writer/director Margaret Betts has brought forth a powerful and fascinating look inside the walls of a nunnery where young postulants receive their training. Her knowledge of the Catholic educational methods must come from actual experience or by intense study of the rituals required by the faithful.
Young Cathleen Harris is first made aware of religion at the age of seven. Raised by a non-religious single mother (a comically sad Julianne Nicholson), Cathleen is given a chance to attend a Catholic school at the age of 12. Her eyes are opened to the presence of God for the first time, and she falls in love with Him and the religion presented to her at school.
By the time she is 17 she has made up her mind that the religious life is for her. Her mother is astonished as she herself has no religious leanings and can’t understand her teen-age daughters fervent love of Jesus and the rituals of the Church. Sometimes it is simply born into a person to become a sculptor, an architect, and actress or a nun. For Cathleen it is the discipline and formality of the church, along with her own inner feelings of devotion that propels her toward her life’s ambition.
Promising young actress Margaret Qualley plays the young girl with conviction and sensitivity. With a helpful guiding hand from director/writer Margaret Betts, Ms Qualley handles the difficult part of a young woman of determination without seeming overly aggressive. In fact, she seems acquiescent to all that is dished out to her during her difficult as a postulant.
The magnificent Melissa Leo (Best Supporting Actress Oscar® for The Fighter) is perfectly cast as the severe Mother Superior, whom Catharine must obey. Leo is not a stranger to playing parts that are completely unlike her own personality. She has proven it in many films before this (Frozen River, Lee Daniel’s The Butler, The Big Short, Snowden). In an interview with IndieWire, Leo said “I know what it meant to me to play the Reverend Mother, a role I’ve, in some way, prepared a lifetime to do.” She explained, “It’s why I took the part. I have a fascination with the commitment of those women.”
In common vernacular, it can be said the Leo’s Mother Superior is the nun from hell. What a maniac she is in her passion for the church and for the rules of the game in the nunnery! She rants, she raves, she intimidates the novitiates and humiliates them at every chance. The most chilling aspect of Leo’s character is the tone of her voice. It’s begins as soft as a lamb’s wool. It’s chillingly intimidating, but everything she says sounds like a mother’s lullaby. That is, until you get the intent of her embracing tones. She is truly evil, although she would not recognize that aspect of her cajoling the young girls, which reduces them to tears. It’s an incredible performance and one which should win Leo another Oscar® nomination.
When human beings are thrown together in a tightly-knit group, be it in the convent, a scouting group or even the military, they will eventually seek the warmth and companionship that can be offered by another of the clan. Director Betts does not ignore this aspect of healthy young girls seeking love and joy from another of the novitiates. Yes, there is a touching sex scene included that makes it only true to life. It is not lascivious in tone, but a gentle look at a lovely experience of two lonely, young and sexually oppressed women.
The movie enthralled me all the way through. Ms. Leo’s stellar performance places her talents beside her contemporary fellow actress Meryl Streep and as a candidate to join classic stars Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn of screen greats.
(Released by Sony Pictures Classics and rated “R” for language, some sexuality and nudity.)