By Joe Farkus, NDG Contributing Writer
Of the more than 1.2 billion Catholics in the world, only 50,000 are living lives as nuns in convents, monasteries, and abbeys all over the world. That’s a 72% decrease from 1965 when that number totaled 180,000. What’s changed since 1965? Novitiate successfully captures both the earth-shaking changes to the Catholic Church that occurred as a result of Vatican II, a council called by Pope John XXIII which many view as the signature event that modernized the centuries-old Christian institution and its traditions, and the intense and often cruelly isolated life religious women seek in devotion to Jesus Christ.
Starring the compelling Margaret Qualley as the teenage devotee Cathleen, the film tells the story of her entrance into a convent as she pursues a calling to the holy sisterhood. Shocking and worrying her mother (Julianne Nicholson), Cathleen undergoes a dramatic transformation as she witnesses the ironically unforgiving Reverend Mother’s (Melissa Leo) attempts at preserving the traditions and harsh life of her convent and church.
Qualley delivers an understated, yet riveting, performance as the film’s protagonist. Director Margaret Betts somehow captures the mystery of faith and the fervent religiosity of a select group of young women who feel called to a life of uncommon silence and isolation in order to please God. Betts cleverly keeps the story contained inside the walls of the convent, rarely peeking out beyond its stone-cold walls to witness the world changing rapidly around the Sisters.
Some of Novitiate’s strongest and most emotionally-charged moments come as a result of Dianna Agron’s performance as Sister Mary Grace, a calm and empathetic nun who displays the kind of compassion seemingly unknown to the convent’s leadership. Her inability to come to terms with the older Reverend Mother’s often sadistic punishments accurately reflects the wider conflicts within the church at-large during Vatican II and the surrounding years.
For better or worse, the evidence has proven a gentler, less insular Catholicism emerged from the ashes of the pre-Vatican II church. What Betts’ film does better than anything is showcase the change through a deeply personal and moving narrative delivered with an excellent screenplay and superb performances.
Novitiate is released in select Dallas theaters Friday, Nov. 10. The film is rated R and intended for mature audiences only.