(IMAGE: SONY PICTURES CLASSICS)
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.