Margaret Betts’ Novitiate simply isn’t the type of film I’m normally drawn to. This has less to do with the movie’s focus on Catholicism and religion than with the way it’s constructed. I’d never call myself a religious person, but I can find myself fascinated by others’ attraction to religion, the same way that I can find any movie on any topic fascinating as long as there is an artistry or drive behind it. Unfortunately, I didn’t find this in Betts’ feature debut, a movie that seems too languid and too unfocused to truly, wholeheartedly recommend. Instead, Novitiate exists more as a sign of Betts’ potential than a fully formed and wholly powerful creation.
The story follows — or begins to follow — Cathleen (Margaret Qualley, The Nice Guys), a young woman from a nonreligious family who decides that she wants to become a nun. Much of this is out of a sense of love, or at least a search for it, having seen the transience of physical, earthly love in her mother’s (Julianne Nicholson, Black Mass) life. Cathleen instead wants spiritual love, something that’s not as simple as signing up for it, since there’s a process to becoming a nun, one that runs right through the strict and very traditional Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo).
Set in the ’60s, much of the film revolves around this young woman looking for a strict religious life, the older woman who wants to provide it and the reforms of Vatican II that look to soften that world. Because of the way the movie’s structured, Novitiate slowly shifts its point of view from Cathleen to the Reverend Mother, whose entire way of living and her strict rules for living a religious life (and her ways of punishing those who don’t live up to this standard) is gradually being eroded by new decrees. And her loss of control and power lends itself to confusion and anger in the woman. This leads to a much showier role for Leo, one that’s good, but unfortunately overshadows Cathleen, who makes for a more interesting and deeper character overall and who’s too often slightly forgotten as the film chugs along.
As a whole, it makes for an interesting meditation on the inner lives of the fervently religious, their motivations and the way in which this lifestyle drives them. But it’s a film that takes a lot of patience since everything’s shot very deliberately. I’m not denying that Novitiate can often be gorgeous and well-composed; there’s just a lack of focus in the plotting that makes the film difficult to want to follow along with. None of this means that the movie is a failure, but rather a missed opportunity; and with so many quality films out at the moment, it makes it a hard movie to get very excited about. Rated R for language, some sexuality and nudity. Now playing at Grail Moviehouse.