Sony Pictures Classics. 2017. Religious Drama. 123 minutes.

RATING: 3 angels

As impres­sive as the debut nar­ra­tive fea­ture from doc­u­men­tar­i­an Margarett Betts often is, it some­times plays as a missed oppor­tu­ni­ty. Betts clear­ly wants to present Catholicism with­out all the mythi­fi­ca­tion and/​or out­right big­otry movies tend to aim its way – the nuns in her fic­tive con­vent are nei­ther suf­fused with astral light nor do they pul­sate with bare­ly con­trolled sex­u­al hysteria.

Betts has also and wise­ly upped the ante by dra­ma­tiz­ing a deci­sive moment in Catholic his­to­ry: the Vatican II era, when the Church under­went rad­i­cal reforms as a response to the mod­ern world. It’s a smart choice for a movie about the shift­ing of val­ues thought to be eternal.

But the set-​up doesn’t real­ly pay off. Vatican II is most­ly back­ground fod­der in a movie that some­times plays more like THE CAINE MUTINY COURT MARTIAL than a seri­ous reli­gious film.

Margaret Qualley is lumi­nous and effec­tive as Sister Kathleen, the young woman called to the Church as a reac­tion against the emp­ty sec­u­lar­ism of a dif­fi­cult child­hood. Shy and inward, Qualley man­ages to be utter­ly believ­able in a most­ly pas­sive role. But the script strug­gles to get any fur­ther into her trans­for­ma­tion than hav­ing her artic­u­late it by say­ing I love you God” repeat­ed­ly. The dif­fi­cult but in this con­text essen­tial chal­lenge of exter­nal­iz­ing a res­o­nant inner shift is not real­ly even tak­en up.

Where Qualley’s per­for­mance embraces sub­tle­ty, Melissa Leo’s dic­ta­to­r­i­al Reverend Mother is a dread­nought of rec­ti­tude and cer­ti­tude and any oth­er tude describ­ing the very trope NOVITIATE wants to avoid: the bru­tal­ly author­i­tar­i­an Catholic cler­ic. In more del­i­cate hands, the Reverend Mother could have been a sym­pa­thet­ic fig­ure – her loss in the face of sud­den change is the great­est of any char­ac­ter, because she’s los­ing not just her place in the Church but also the very cos­mol­o­gy she built her iden­ti­ty on. But Leo plays every scene as if she’s Charles Laughton on the bridge of the Bounty, look­ing for sailors to keel­haul. She blasts past the nuances, mak­ing for a per­for­mance that’s odd­ly watch­able in a JIGSAW kind of way but also a wreck­ing ball amongst all the del­i­cate the­o­log­i­cal crockery.

With Leo so com­mit­ted to breath­ing fire, the emo­tion­al cen­ter becomes Qualley’s rela­tion­ship with her trou­bled but sassy and agnos­tic mom, bril­liant­ly played by Julianne Nicholson as a strong woman des­per­ate­ly com­mit­ted to lov­ing her daugh­ter, even if that means accept­ing a life choice that will per­ma­nent­ly sep­a­rate them. There are oth­er gra­cenotes as well. NOVITIATE is beau­ti­ful­ly filmed with­out being dec­o­ra­tive – direc­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy Kat Westergaard man­ages to make Betts’ order­ly world of brick and women simul­ta­ne­ous­ly aus­tere and sooth­ing, a visu­al equiv­a­lent of reli­gious devotion.

A lot of ink has already been spilled on a so-​called les­bian” love scene that isn’t real­ly about les­bian­ism or eroti­cism at all. It’s a beau­ti­ful­ly wrought paean to the neces­si­ty of real human con­tact, with a sim­ple mantra, deliv­ered over and over by a woman in despair: I want you to com­fort me.” And Qualley is far from the only young actress who does dis­tin­guished work. NOVITIATE is fre­quent­ly at its best when it allows its aspir­ing nuns to func­tion as an ensem­ble of women con­fused and exhil­a­rat­ed by their inchoate faith.

Movies are a medi­um invent­ed by the clowns and repro­bates – an activ­i­ty for those who’d rather spend Sundays at a mat­inée than a high mass. They’ve rarely been any good at depic­tions of heirar­chi­cal sys­tems based on the sup­pres­sion of indi­vid­ual will in favor of spir­i­tu­al sub­mis­sion. Though it can’t quite tran­scend the clich­es of its genre, NOVITIATE aspires to a high­er pur­pose, and fal­ter­ing­ly achieves it. There’s enough tal­ent and ambi­tion on dis­play here to for­give NOVITIATE for most of its sins, and to mark Betts as a new tal­ent to watch.

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