My last review closed with the line “Along with films like Moonlight and The Florida Project, we may be heading towards another type of standard prestige picture which I hope doesn’t happen, but I’ll gladly take films like this over the ACTING showcases which dominate now.” Well say hello to the more standard prestige picture and ACTING showcase, Novitiate (Hi Novitiate).
Directed by Margaret Betts, the film tells of women (led by Margaret Qualley of The Leftovers) in the 1960s in the process of becoming nuns. While The Nun’s Story may be where your mind first goes (and gets named dropped), your mind really should go more to Doubt or maybe even The Devil’s as prestige fare. Doubt is an interesting movie for me because although I loved it at the time, it’s also a film that I saw at the peak of my film going days and before the very stagey chance for the actors to show off had worn out its welcome with me. What seemed fantastic then thanks to the script and performances, I fear would not hit anywhere near as hard now.
I bring this all up because Novitiate is a film I would have probably loved a lot more ten years ago and also because “doubt” is an important part of the film. Well not as important as “love”. If you don’t believe this, wait about a minute or two and the movie will be sure to mention “love” again. The film emphasizes that those seeking to become nuns do so largely out of seeking love from God, a love that is almost sexual in nature and in one scene I almost expected a character to make out with a Jesus statue (and one that looked about as cheap as the Buddy Christ). The film is far from subtle in the way it portrays the church as basically a young crush that nuns all eventually grow out of. They struggle for a connection with something great and not always finding it, they often are forced to look elsewhere, like each other. It’s a fine message and all, but after a while it just got silly.
The reforms of Vatican II form a backdrop as the Mother Superior grapples with the changes being made, changes which will minimize the special-ness of nuns and their bond. This council is one the film explains before the film in text despite it later basically described almost identically as part of the film. The text at the end then after basically sums up the movie for us for those who fell asleep (good on them for knowing their audience on that last point). The Mother Superior (played by Melissa Leo of Frozen River and The Fighter) besides desperately wanting another Oscar, is cruel and outdated, tormenting her novices with the only meaning to her life coming from her position. The rest of the cast are generally nuns questioning their place and or women questioning if they would like to be ones.
Qualley is fine in the lead role and has her moments but for the most part is just exceptionally bland. Julianne Nicholson who plays her non-religious mother is the one given the most scenery to chew (which is impressive sharing the screen with Leo) as my mental notes went from “her character is one of the best parts” to “her character is one of the most standard roles in these types of films and so full of over the top acting”. The rest of her class (Including Dianna Agron and Morgan Saylor of Homeland) varies in quality but seemingly everyone gets to have a big acting reel scene. Honestly, Agron was probably the best (which according to my source is a huge surprise but I know little about her though I also liked Ashley Bell who deserved so much more after The Last Exorcism (like not having to be in its sequel).
The highlight of the film though is the cinematography. Director of photography Kat Westergaard favors long static shots and while it may be color, at times it is so black, white, and gray that is might as well be black and white. It looks fantastic. The makeup though… I don’t usually notice these things, but after the praise of Lady Bird for going light on the makeup for Ronan, the fact that everyone here seems so heavily made up (in a convent) that I had a hard time believing any of these women weren’t just about to head out of a date any moment.
All in all, though I can see why it is acclaimed as it looks great and is filled with interesting things to say. It’s just that the pace is far too languid and the film too afraid the viewer won’t understand subtext and so it keeps having to explain everything I had figured out well beforehand. It’s not quite Oscar bait because I think it is too small and controversial a movie to be that, but it sure is the kind of film that comes out every year towards the end.