Spanning over a decade from the early 1950s through to the mid-60s, NOVITIATE is about a young girl’s first initiation with love, in this case with God. Raised by a non-religious, single mother in rural Tennessee, a scholarship to Catholic school soon finds Cathleen drawn into the mystery and romanticism of a life devoted to the worship and servitude of God. With the dawn of the Vatican II era, radical changes in the Church are threatening the course of nuns’ lives.
As she progresses from the postulant to the novitiate stage of training, she finds her faith repeatedly confronted and challenged by the harsh, often inhumane realities of being a servant of God. Cathleen finds herself struggling with issues of faith, sexuality, and recent changes in life of the Church.
Never an easy watch, Novitiate shows the inner workings of a convent and the process of becoming a nun. Much of the film is quiet, reserved dialogue with bleak stills of the nunnery. Margaret Qualley plays Cathleen, the 17 year old who leaves her old life behind as she devotes her time and love to the church. The film takes a rather mundane idea and turns it into a gripping discovery of the Catholic practice.
Melissa Leo has already thrown her name in the award season hat with her performance as the menacing Reverend Mother. Her by the books behaviour is intimidating as we watch her break down the young women and question their faith. Julianne Nicholson also gives a genuine performance as the mother of Cathleen who must come to terms with the idea that she has lost her daughter to the church.
Some decisions made throughout the film are questionable as it seems like they were needed to forward the plot while some characters in general seem out of place.. Despite its few faults, Novitiate is a harrowing character study that takes the viewer inside a place that hasn’t been explored enough.