Cathleen (played as a youngster by Eliza Stella Mason) is a just seven years old when she falls in love for the first time. Taken to church for the first time by her non-religious mother Nora (Julianne Nicholson) the little girl becomes attracted to the solemnity of the service. It’s the polar opposite of her home life where Mom and Dad (Chris Zylka) are constantly at one another’s throats. When she’s offered a chance to attend Catholic school for free Cathleen jumps at the chance despite Nora’s misgivings.
At the convent school Cathleen (played by Margaret Qualley from age seventeen on) finds the life she was always unable to enjoy at home. Under the watchful eye of Reverend Mother the teenager decides to give herself over to the church, become a nun and devote herself to the worship and servitude of God.
“That’s the craziest thing I have ever heard,” comes Nora’s stunned reaction.
“I was called,” says Cathleen. “I want to become a nun and there is nothing you can do to make me change my mind.”
Her training—from postulant to the novitiate—coincides with the introduction of Vatican II, a reaction to changing cultural practises after World War II that signalled widespread changes in the church. With change afoot Cathleen determines what it means to embark on a life as a servant of God, as Reverend Mother grapples with what the changes mean to her faith.
“Novitiate” is a detailed, sombre look at the nature of faith that sometimes feels like two movies in one. Cathleen’s narrative leads the story and is the most compelling part of the film but her story of love and sacrifice is diluted by Reverend Mother’s reaction to the reformist and more-liberal-than-she’d-like Vatican II dictums. The characters are bookends but even with the two hour run time there isn’t quite enough story to dive deep into their lives and make us care about both.
Better stated are Cathleen’s quandaries. She wrangles but rarely waivers with her faith, presenting a complex look at the personal toll that comes with the gruelling novitiate process. Qualley and her supporting cast of “sisters”— Liana Liberato, Eline Powell, Morgan Saylor, Maddie Hasson and Ashley Bell—are a mosaic of characters placed together to show the various reasons the young women chose to become nuns.
Leo humanizes the severe Reverend Mother, turning her from stern mistress to a person caught in the tide of change and unable to swim.
Betts, who also wrote “Novitiate’s” script, brings nuance and thoughtfulness to most characters but as a whole the meditative mood of the movie’s two storylines never coalesce.