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TIFF 2017 Review: “Novitiate” (2016) ★★★★★


Margaret Qualley as Sister Cathleen. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

If you all have seen Fred Zinnemann’s The Nun’s Story (1959) with the incomparable Audrey Hepburn, then you should be able to prepare yourself for an equally great, painfully real and frighteningly relevant “Novitiate” written and directed by Margaret Betts. Both movies question faith. But Betts’ piece goes further to question sexuality, freedom, and why having one faith is not enough to get from life more than devotion to something you simply can’t touch or see with your own eyes.

Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) was not raised as Catholic nor her parents, who were way too far from being considered as obedient believers. Cathleen was 12 years old when an opportunity came to join a Catholic school for free of charge. Her mother did not want to decline such an offer, but failed to predict the consequences. The consequences though could barely be considered grave for a mother who gives up her daughter for the Love to God. Cathleen, as she grows sixteen years old faces the biggest challenge as she must learn to love herself, God, and follow all strict rules dictated by an evil Mother Reverend (Melissa Leo), who sees every nun through, as if she would see herself through them.

“Where are you? Why you’re doing this to me?” – you will hear Mother Reverend questioning God in the opening scene. She will continue doing the same throughout, as we will be taken back to the point when we learn her reasons of disappointment and the cause of confusion, if you wish. Mother Reverend is someone who refuses to have her mind open, and is glad to practice a 100 hundred years old tradition that can break the faith rather than breathing life into it. And that is something you, my dear reader, must read through the line the way it had been offered by Betts.

There is always one scene that defines the entire movie but Novitiate has more of them. The scene where Mother Reverened punishes Sister Sissy for breaking the grand silence is a true delight and a masterpience on its own. That particular scene with first given opportunity I would have watched million of times to enjoy the performance of Melissa Leo, I am sure will get her with bigger recognition. So yes, Mother Reverend tells to her the Sisters, “God is not Dream or Fantasy”. And yes, he is not, indeed. But that is exactly what Sister Cathleen must learn or realize by herself before committing into something she would know for sure is real.


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