Movies about nuns have a curiously high batting average: From The Sound of Music to The Innocents, there is something fascinating about women choosing a life of worship and deprivation. Novitiate is a fairly realistic depiction of life inside a convent and the result is unbearably dull.
Set during the early 60’s, Novitiate tackles the effects of the Second Vatican Council over a nunnery in Tennessee. The Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo) is reluctant to implement the changes (no more Latin, develop a relationship with the community, no more self-laceration as penitence), fearful it may undermine the nuns’ calling.
We witness the nunnery begin to crumble through the eyes of a novice, Cathleen (Margaret Qualley). Born to an agnostic mother and an absentee dad, Cathleen becomes fascinated by the idea of an intimate relationship with God, but her budding sexuality won’t be denied.
Cathleen is the main problem of the film, but is far from the only one. Qualley, so good in The Leftovers and so terrible in Death Note, is underserved by the script and fails to convey her inner struggle in any interesting way. At the opposite end, Melissa Leo chews the scenery uncontested. She is all fire and brimstone and takes it on the sisters.
If faith is underserved (the movie fails to explain why Vatican II is such a problem in any sensible way), sexuality is treated just as perfunctorily. Novitiate hints at the notion that lesbians joined convents as an alternative to be shun by their communities, but doesn’t have the audacity to develop the idea. Writer/director Margaret Betts is a first timer and it shows: The actors run amok, the plot is flimsy and the character development is very limited.
The film’s mediocrity is highlighted by the coda: The audience is summarily informed that Vatican II inspired nuns to abandon their calling in massive numbers. One wishes Novitiate had tackled the matter head on as opposed to through low-impact drama. Two planets (out of five).
Novitiate opens November 18th at the Roxy Theatre.