Films with the Catholic Church as its subject have always painted a ghastly picture of the religious institution. Recent films like the Foreign Film Oscar Winner IDA and the Best Picture Oscar Winner SPOTLIGHT immediately come to mind. But is the Peter Mullan’s 2002 biting satire THE MAGDALENE SISTERS that bear the closest resemblance to Margaret Bett’s equally scathing drama NOVITIATE. THE MAGDALENE SISTERS and NOVITIATE take different paths but both make good companion pieces.
NOVITIATE begins with Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) at a church altar, questioning God on her choice of becoming a nun. The film flashes back to 1964, 10 years earlier to follow the chain of events that led her to make this decision and how she has come to question that decision. By immersing the audience into the single character of Cathleen, Betts brings her audience to the first lesson in ‘novitiation’ or “Becoming a nun 101”. It is an eye-opening and gruelling lesson.
Cathleen enters a convent, convinced she’ll never be more in love with anyone except for God. Her mother, (Julianne Nicholson) is totally against the idea, chastening her daughter telling her she knows nothing about religion or that love for God. Betts puts the audience on Cathleen’s side, but later on in the film, turns the audience back to the mother;s side, when the church has gone so wrong that Cathleen’s decision might not have been the right one.
The church gone wrong arrives in the form of the Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo). When the film opens, the Pope and higher ups in the Vatican decided on reforms (called Vatican II) to modernize the Church so that it be more relevant in current times. The Reverend Mother must learn to relinquish authority after the news of planned reforms from Vatican II.
Melissa Leo steals the show, aided by three segments containing well written dialogue for her character. One is her opening speech stressing that there is no love without sacrifice. Another is her defence against the Archbishop when confronted on her authority and the last is her confrontation scene with Cathleen’s mother.
One glaring problem of the film is Cathleen’s make-up. It is clear to everyone that nuns or those in training are not allowed any makeup. Yet, Cathleen is seen with eye shadow, powder and light lipstick.
Betts keeps her film always interesting by the addition of several subplots that back up the main one of Cathleen. One is the abuse of Sister Sissy who ends up being sent home. Another is Sister Mary Grace’s service at the convent. She is sincere, loving and open but finally is forced to confront the Reverend Mother.
NOVITIATE ends with the note that after the Vatican’s reforms (which are signalled as progressive in Betts’ film, 90,000 nuns have since left convents all over the world. This poses the disturbing implication that these 90,000 nuns must have been against these reforms and have been practising cruelty of the past.