TIFF 2017: “Novitiate” Review: Something Truly Divine
Novitiate tells the story of Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) a young girl who finds her first love, God and decides to enter the convent to begin the process of becoming a nun. Despite the grueling and something cruel process enacted by the Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo), she works her way through all while struggling with sexuality, religion, love, and passion. Set in the 1960s, the girls are well on their way to becoming nuns when the Vatican II changes are enacted in the church. This would drastically change the way the nuns would be treated and act on a daily basis. No one was more resistant to the change than Reverend Mother. Confronted with these changes, she did her best to resist and at times, took her anger out on the young girls.
Despite religion and religious films not being my cup of tea, you cannot deny the beauty and incredible talent behind this film. It works to set up an atmosphere that is both tense, reverent, and suspenseful. The performances in the film are top-notch. Melissa Leo is almost unrecognizable as Reverend Mother and strikes fear into the hearts of not only the people in the film but also carries over to the audience. Margaret Qualley as Sister Cathleen is great. She plays the duality and struggles of her character so well and really conveys the emotion in every scene. She reminds me of Emma Roberts mixed with Kristen Stewart in both acting and appearance. The supporting actors, particularly the young girls, give spectacular performances as well.
There are a few scenes in Novitiate that are so powerful that they elevate the film even further. In one scene, Reverend Mother manipulates the girls to confess their faults or shortcomings. The girls all form a circle and are down on their knees, and each time a girl is called to the middle of the circle to confess their most egregious shortcomings. The first scene in which this happens, you could cut the tension with a knife. As fear-stricken Sister Evelyn (Morgan Saylor) tries to answer the questions of the Reverend Mother, the audience hangs on to every word. The audience watches every movement, every sound, and bites their lip as the defenseless Sister Evelyn is at the mercy of the slightly unhinged Reverend Mother. Everything from the lighting to the cinematography and line delivery was perfection. There are just some scenes in films that will stay with you forever, and that is certainly one of them.
Another scene that really stands out from the rest is a scene in which Reverend Mother severely reprimands and punishes one of the sisters for speaking during Grand Silence. As she screams wildly and angrily at the young girl and orders her to crawl on her knees, you feel the instability and slight insanity of Reverend Mother. While this scene alone would easily earn Melissa Leo an Oscar nomination, she continues to up the ante for the duration of the film. This is one of Melissa Leo’s best performances to date.
While no film is perfect, Novitiate comes very close. I do have to point out that there are some scenes that fade to black that seem slightly out of place or overly long. I don’t know if it was maybe an issue with the cut of the film we saw or the projector lagging in those points, but that is really my only complaint.
On the surface, Novitiate doesn’t seem like a film I would like, but I am glad to report it is definitely one that must be seen. Novitiate is a suspenseful and captivating film that tells a seldom explored story about the conviction and love that some have for their God and religion. With an inside look at the process of discernment, we are given much more than we would expect. With superb performances and a spectacularly written and directed script, we are given one of the best films of 2017.