A film about a convent of cloistered nuns has always been a perfect topic for a film. It’s even better if you have a Reverend Mother who will antagonize the young postulants. Novitiate begins in the 1960s with 17-year-old Cathleen’s realisation that she wants to become a nun. Over the years we see that Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) is totally fascinated when she meets a nun. Nora (Julianne Nicholson), her agnostic mother, is not very happy when Cathleen tells her. The Sisters of the blessed rose is managed by Reverend Mother Marie St. Clair (Melissa Leo). At first she speaks in a low whisper voice, instructing the new postulants on what their lives will be like from now on. There is “regular silence”, they are told, during which time some talking will be permitted, and there is “grand silence” where no talking is allowed. Complete silence. There is little doubts that Cathleen (now Sister Cathleen) had a real “calling” (thanks to Qualley’s emotionally invested performance), but the reasons for the other girls may be less pure. The idealized notions we see in movies, like Audrey Hepburn in Fred Zinnemann’s 1959 film The nun’s story, or the insistence from their families that there ought to be at least one child as a priest or a nun are some of the reason. But whatever the reasons, the temptation to succumb to the sexual urges is present throughout the film. It is during that time that the reforms brought on by Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council (AKA Vatican II) were introduced. Reverend Mother Marie St. Clair is against any changes and refuses to accept the orders she has received from her Bishop. So the nuns continue to whip themselves with a weird knotted-rope instrument, and there is something called “the chapter of faults”, where the young postulants kneel on the floor for long hours and have to confess their sins and weaknesses. Writer-director Maggie Betts has put together an excellent cast of actresses, young and old. Beside Qualley’s central performance, we have noted a few names. Dianna Agron (from TVs Glee) plays Sister Mary Grace, a progressive nun who disagree with the Reverend Mother and feels the need to leave the order. Julianne Nicholson plays Sister Cathleen’s mom with a brassy camp that is great fun to anticipate. Her confrontation with the Reverend Mother is one of the best scene in the film. And Leo in a performance that is subtle and overplayed, sometime in the same scene, speech or phrase. In the early scenes, we know that under that soft voice there is a scary woman. It is Leo showing us the different layers of contradiction of the Reverend Mother that makes it so compelling to watch. As with all films with nuns, Novitiate is aesthetically most beautiful to watch, thanks to cinematographer Kat Westergaard. Beside the score by Christopher Stark, there is a soundtrack of classical music for female choirs. Novitiate shakes up our pre-conceived notions about nuns and the powers inside the church. Any church.
Plays at Ottawa’s ByTowne Cinema from November 17 – 23