If you have seen Fred Zinnemann’s “The Nun’s Story” (1959) starring incomparable Audrey Hepburn, then you’d be prepared to see a film equally great, painfully real and frighteningly relevant. “Novitiate” is written and directed by Margaret Betts, and questions faith, as did Znnemann’s infamous film. Margaret Betts goes even further, bringing up such topics as sexuality, freedom, and questioning whether or not faith alone is not enough to get more from life than simply devotion to something one can neither see or touch.
Neither Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) nor her parents were raised as Catholics. In fact, they were too far from being obedient believers. Yet, when Cathleen is 12, an opportunity came up to join a Catholic school for free. Her mother decides not to decline such a generous offer failing to predict the consequences of her decision. One wouldn’t consider those consequences too grim when it comes to a mother who gives up her daughter for the sake of the Love to God. At sixteen, Cathleen is to face the biggest challenge in her life, as she must learn to love herself, God, and follow the strict rules enforces by Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo), who sees every nun through, as if seeing herself in them.
“Where are you? Why you’re doing this to me?” – you hear Mother Reverend question God in the opening scene of the film. She will continue doing the same throughout the story. As viewers, we’ll be taken back to her past, where we learn her reasons that have caused confusion and caused disappointment in her mind. Mother Reverend is a person who refuses to be open-minded. Instead, she gladly practices a hundred-year-old tradition that can break one’s faith rather than breathe life into it. That is something the reader should be able to read between the lines in Margaret Betts’ film.
Most films can be defined by one key scene that the viewer never forgets. In case of “Novitiate”, there’s more than just one of them. For instance, the scene where Mother Reverend punishes Sister Sissy for breaking the grand silence is a true delight and a masterpiece on its own. I am sure, if given a chance, I would watch that scene a million times to enjoy Melissa Leo’s brilliant performance. In the film, Mother Reverend talked to the sisters, saying: “God is not a dream or fantasy”. And I agree. Indeed, he is not. But that is something that Sister Cathleen has to learn before committing herself to something she would know for sure is real.